African migrants in Tunisia plead for help amid rise in racially motivated attacks

Left homeless after landlords kicked them out, many are protesting outside UN migration agency in central Tunis

Sub-Saharan African migrants camp outside the headquarters of the International Organisation for Migration in Tunis on Thursday. AFP
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Hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia have reported being forcibly evicted from their homes and the subject of racially motivated violence amid a wave of anger against migrants unleashed by recent comments from the president.

Tunisian President Kais Saied last week said "urgent measures" were needed to tackle irregular migration and claimed, without evidence, that there was "a criminal plot" under way "to change Tunisia's demographic make-up".

Since then, black people in Tunisia, citizens and migrants alike, have reported being attacked, mugged and abused due to their skin colour.

Police have also arrested dozens of what they called "illegal" migrants.

The African Union condemned Mr Saied’s speech and warned against what it described as “racialised hate speech”.

The AU Commission 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”.

“He [Mr Saied] is the reason we are here,” Natacha, 27, from Sierra Leone, told The National in front of the headquarters of the UN’s International Organisation for Migration in Tunis.

Natacha was one of the dozens from sub-Saharan Africa who have been camping outside the IOM office since last week after being evicted from her home. She said her landlord attacked had her and her husband, forcing them to flee their house in Ariana, north of Tunis.

“They broke into our house at midnight and dragged us out, they piled our belongings and burnt them before our eyes,” Natacha said of the night she became homeless.

“They beat me up so badly that I suffered a miscarriage,” she added.

Natacha said she travelled north from Sierra Leone with her husband and her friend Meriem by hitching rides on lorries four months ago. It took her a year to save the money for the trip and two weeks to make the 5,000-kilometre journey.

Sher said the dangerous journey turned violent and that she was raped in Algeria.

“I am an orphan, all my family have been killed and I had no other choice but to come here,” Meriem, 26, told The National, as she set fire to some plastic bottles for heat in the cold weather.

Others said their situation was bad before Mr Saied's comments but it had got a lot worse since.

We have always been called names and attacked on the street before, but this time it’s different
Yahya, immigrant from Sierra Leone

“We know that people here are racist, we have always been called names and attacked on the street before, but this time it’s different,” said Yahya, 23, also from Sierra Leone.

She said the President’s speech had given people "the go-ahead to act on their racism”.

Sierra Leone does not have diplomatic representation in Tunisia, making it harder for its citizens to seek official help from their country.

Emmanuel, also camped outside the IOM headquarters, said he came to Tunisia after fleeing unrest in the south-eastern area of Nigeria.

“We did not come here because things are better; we escaped civil unrest,” he told The National.

Before Tunisia, he was in Libya. “I had to escape bombing in Libya, too, and came here,” he said, showing the relevant stamps on his passport.

“I am here in front of the UN trying to seek asylum; if they can’t help us, they should help us go home to die there instead of dying in a foreign land,” he said.

Emmanuel said he, too, was kicked out of his home overnight after the president’s remarks. He said his landlord took his rent money, then threw him into the street.

“They stole my phone and I cannot even reach out to my family,” said Osman, 20, another from Sierra Leone.

“I do not know if they are alive and they do not know if I am."

Osman told The National his family had sold all their property so he could reach Tunisia in search of a better life.

“I am sick and tired, I hope someone can help us,” he said, showing bruises on his legs he said were from people beating him with sticks as he was thrown out of his home.

Several videos circulated on Tunisian groups on Facebook and TikTok show black people being assaulted, with some covered in blood. Others shared accounts online of witnessing landlords kicking out migrant African tenants, setting their belongings on fire and assaulting them in various areas of Tunisia.

Dozens of migrants continue to camp outside the IOM headquarters in Tunis, as well as other embassies, waiting to be repatriated by their respective countries or to be granted asylum by the UN agency.

Updated: March 02, 2023, 5:56 PM