World Bank suspends partnership talks with Tunisia after attacks on migrants

Black people in Tunisia have reported being subjected to racially motivated violence in recent weeks

Migrants in Tunis head with their belongings to a repatriation flight. AFP
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The World Bank is pausing strategic partnership talks with the Tunisian government following President Kais Saied’s remarks about migrants in the country, World Bank President David Malpass told staff in an internal note on Sunday.

In the note, Mr Malpass said the bank was suspending Tunisia's Country Partnership Framework, which mapped out future programmes from 2023 to 2025, and would postpone until further notice a March 21 board meeting to review that new strategic engagement. Current work was continuing, he said.

Before the decision, Tunisia had a scheduled World Bank board meeting on March 21 to discuss the partnership framework.

Mr Malpass said in the same note that the meeting was postponed “until further notice”, with current work and projects with Tunisia remaining financed.

Mr Saied had said on February 21 that “urgent measures” were needed to tackle irregular migration and claimed, without providing evidence, that there was “a criminal plot” under way “to change Tunisia’s demographic composition”.

Hundreds of sub-Saharan African migrants in the country have reported being subjected to racially motivated attacks that have prompted some of them to ask for voluntary repatriation to their countries of origin.

“Public commentary that stokes discrimination, aggression and racist violence is completely unacceptable,” Mr Malpass told staff in his note.

The international lender also said that the aim of its projects was to create better living conditions for people — citizens and migrants alike.

“The safety and inclusion of migrants and minorities is part of our institutions’ core values of inclusion, respect and antiracism in all shapes and forms,” read the internal note that was leaked online.

Tunisia’s Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar denied at a press conference on Monday any racism allegations and said the Interior Ministry had been legally pursuing all documented attacks on migrants.

“Tunisia will not allow any violation targeting sub-Saharan Africans or any foreigner alike”, he said.

The ministry also announced on Tuesday that it has set up a hotline for foreign residents who wish to report crimes against them.

Sub-Saharan African migrants camp outside the headquarters of the International Organisation for Migration in Tunis. AFP

The World Bank said procedures enacted by the Tunisian government to protect migrants are “a positive step” but that it will carefully monitor the implementation of those measures.

On February 25, the African Union called Tunisia’s representative to the body 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 Mr Saied's “shocking statement” which goes “against the purpose and the spirit of the organisation and its founding principles”.

International condemnation of the situation in Tunisia continued, with US State Department spokesman Ned Price saying on Monday that Washington “is deeply concerned” over Mr Saied’s remarks.

Mr Price urged Tunisian authorities to commit to their international refugees, asylum seekers and migrants rights’ obligations.

Tunisia continues to seek financial support from international lenders to overcome its ongoing economic crisis, with inflation reaching 10.4 per cent in February.

The African Union had also delayed a conference on combating illicit financial flows, which was scheduled to take place in Tunis this month.

The World Bank had previously approved a $130 million loan to Tunisia for wheat and barley imports in June 2022.

The internal World Bank note is only another tool in the box to apply gentle pressure on Tunisian authorities regarding the unfolding of the multilayered crisis in the country, said one Tunisian economist, who wished not to be named due to safety concerns.

“They [international financial institutions] are sending signals that 'we can make your life difficult'” the economist added.

“This only means more economic and political isolation in Tunisia.”

The World Bank’s work in Tunisia mainly focuses on major investment projects in sectors such as education, health and infrastructure.

Since the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, the Tunisian government has been dependent on World Bank support to be able to buy essential wheat and food products as well as pay for necessary shipment costs and logistics to provide the market with basic commodities.

With an economic crisis and authorities unable to keep the food market stable, especially as Ramadan approaches, the economist told The National there is risk of civil unrest.

Updated: March 07, 2023, 5:06 PM