In a meeting with the National Security Council, Tunisia's president Kais Saied rejected what he called "Sub Saharan African occupation" and the "attempts to alter the demographic composition of Tunisia," sparking a widespread backlash domestically and abroad.
Civil rights groups and activists said they considered the statement dangerous, warning that it could encourage hate crimes against a minority that is already suffering racial discrimination.
“It is a racist approach just like the campaigns in Europe, the [presidential] campaign aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems,” spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Romdhan Ben Amor, told Reuters.
Mr Saied's comments come amid an unprecedented crackdown targeting hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans, namely Ivorians, with more than 300 people being detained and placed in an irregular migrant detention facility in one wave of arrests. Tunisia's government says they have crossed its borders illegally.
“A criminal plan has been set up since the beginning of this century to alter the demographic structure of Tunisia and certain parties received loads of money to enable the occupation of irregular sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia,” Mr Saied claimed in a statement published on the official presidency page on Tuesday night.
The efforts to limit sub-Saharan migration is highly charged. In 2018, the Tunisian parliament passed an antiracism law that criminalises hate speech and incitement to violence based on race, with sentences for such crimes reaching up to three years in prison.
The law did not, however, deter hate crimes targeting sub-Saharan African migrants living in the country.
Echos of European right-wing rhetoric
In recent weeks, a racist online campaign targeting sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia has been launched by a group called “the Tunisian Nationalist Party”.
The campaign focused its arguments on the so-called "great replacement" conspiracy theory, which originated in the French far-right but has spread to fringe conservative movements across the world. Variations of the theory describe secretive plots to allow mass migration into a country, eventually "replacing" the indigenous majority.
President Kais Saied echoed the logic of this in Tuesday’s statement, stating that “the undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to make Tunisia purely African and disconnect its affiliation to Arab and Islamic nations”.
The statement has already attracted the attention of European far-right figures.
“The Maghreb countries themselves are beginning to sound the alarm in the face of the surge in migration,” former French right-wing presidential candidate, Eric Zemmour, tweeted on Wednesday morning.
“Here, it isTunisia that wants to take urgent measures to protect its people. What are we waiting for to fight against the Grand Replacement?” he added.
Tunisia is a major transit point for migrants seeking to cross the Mediterranean to Europe as their final stop.
Tunisia has been accused of acting as a gatekeeper for the European Union’s migration policy, signing agreements that aim at preventing the influx of migrants and refugees to reach Europe as well as receiving money to implement that policy.
The crackdown on the illegal crossing of sub-Saharan African migrants comes just one month following a visit from a delegation of Italy's right-wing government, including Deputy Prime Minister Antonio Tajani and Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi.
“Tunisia and Italy are both victims of the phenomenon of illegal migration,” Mr Tajani told President Saied in January.