The African Union has condemned Tunisia’s President Kais Saied’s speech regarding sub-Saharan migrants in his country, and warned against what it described as “racialised hate speech”.
The AU’s Commission on Saturday said it had called Tunisia’s representative for an urgent meeting to register “deep shock and concern at the form and substance of the statement targeting fellow Africans”.
Commission chairman Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemned the “shocking statement” which goes “against the letter and the spirit of our organisation and its founding principles”, the AU said.
In a meeting with the National Security Council on Tuesday, Mr 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.
Mr Saied repeated the same rhetoric in a meeting with Interior Minister Taoufik Cherfeddine, on Thursday, denying the racism accusations he is facing but also maintaining his stance.
Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry noted its “astonishment” at the African Union’s statement, calling it “baseless” and saying it was the result of “a misunderstanding regarding the Tunisian authorities’ positions”.
The ministry also echoed Mr Saied’s response to the backlash he received stating that “there has been a confusion between ‘legal and illegal migrants’”. Tunisia is trying to counter “illegal groups that traffic in human beings and attempt to exploit them for criminal purposes”, the ministry added.
Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar told TV channel France 24 the statement came as a surprise since the Foreign Ministry had met with the ambassadors of several sub-Saharan African countries “to assure them that their countries' nationals, whose status is legal, have nothing to worry about”.
Meanwhile, different sub-Saharan African countries' embassies, such as Mali, published statements asking their nationals to sign up for voluntary repatriation after increasing hate crimes targeting black people and migrants in Tunisia.
The Nigerian Students’ Association in Tunisia warned its members to stay home and avoid confrontation with Tunisians in the street, after reports of verbal and physical assaults in recent days.
'Anti-Fascism Front' is formed in response to President’s speech
Hundreds of Tunisians rallied on Saturday in a protest led by the Tunisian Anti-Fascism Front, a newly formed coalition that includes more than 40 Tunisian civil society organisations and several independent activists.
Protesters denounced the President’s recent racial remarks and called him to withdraw the statement that they described as “shameful”.
Some of the slogans raised included “Down to fascism, Tunisia is an African land” and “Solidarity with migrants of the whole world”.
“The President’s speech was shocking, that type of radical speech could lead us to violence and division, which is something that we are already seeing,” political activist and protester, Raouf Ben Mohamed Goffa, told The National in front of the National Tunisian Journalists Union before the beginning of the protest.
“Such statements only polarise the social structure of Tunisia, it is rooting us out of our own legacy,” Zied Khaloufi, a representative of the Tunisian Anti-Fascism Front and a history researcher, told The National at Saturday’s protest.
Mr Khaloufi said that the front is planning to continue its protests until the presidency withdraws its statement and help migrants suffering from the repercussions of the recent rise in racist rhetoric.
Meanwhile, an anti-migrant protest is scheduled to take place on Sunday, with supporters of the President launching calls on social media to start what they are calling “a purge” of the country from sub-Saharan migrants.
According to official figures provided by the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights, Tunisia is home to more than 21,000 citizens from sub-Saharan African countries, which is less than 1 per cent of Tunisia’s 12 million population.