Tunisia's president says racism accusations ‘malicious and misleading’

'I'm not racist, I have black friends,' says Kais Saied after migrant row

Tunisian President Kais Saied with President of Guinea Bissau Umaro Sissoco Embalo at the Carthage Palace in Tunis. AFP
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Tunisian President Kais Saied has again denied allegations of racism after saying sub-Saharan migrants threatened the country’s Arab identity during a meeting with Guinea Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embalo saying that he has family members married to "Africans".

Such accusations are nothing but “malicious and misleading accounts” that aim to offend Tunisia and other African states, Mr Saied said during the press conference on Wednesday evening.

“What are they talking about?” he said. “I have many family members who are married to Africans.”

He also said that he had friends at university who were Africans as well as neighbours who used to work for the African Development Bank.

Mr Embalo appeared to offer Mr Saied support during the press conference, but reminded his Tunisian counterpart that he too was African.

“I cannot believe that you [Kais Saied] can be xenophobic or racist, you yourself are African,” Mr Embalo said.

Mr Embalo continued to say that “some people do not know geography and might need lessons", stressing that everyone is African regardless of which region they belong to in the African continent.

“Some people misinterpret statements and I have had that happen with me before as well.”

He also pointed out that Tunisia has been a hospitable country for Africans with many Sub-Saharan students receiving scholarships from the Tunisian state to pursue their undergraduate degrees in its universities.

The latest comments come after a meeting of the Tunisian National Security Council in late February in which Mr Saied called the sub-Saharan migrant community residing in his country “a form of occupation” and part of “a criminal plan to alter the demographic composition of Tunisia”.

His statements sparked a widespread backlash both domestically and abroad.

In the weeks since, police have detained hundreds of black people in Tunisia regardless of nationality.

Citizens and migrants alike have reported facing racially motivated violence with landlords evicting many from their homes and several others losing their jobs due to the crisis.

Some countries such as Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea organised voluntary repatriation trips for their citizens.

However, many remain in precarious conditions with hundreds camping in front of embassies and the UN’s International Migration Organisation headquarters in Tunis.

The body called on Tunisia to uphold its international obligations towards migrants on Wednesday.

“We urge States, international actors, as well as the media to collectively counter harmful and negative rhetoric, hate speech and hate crimes,” the IOM said.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres expressed his shock at the dehumanising rhetoric targeting migrants everywhere.

“When I hear political leaders describing migrants in a way that doesn’t take into account their dignity and the fact that they are human beings, with human rights, is something that deeply shocks me... It shocks me in Tunisia, it shocks me in Europe, it shocks me everywhere.”

Despite the denials he has whipped up racist action against black people in his country, on Wednesday Mr Saeid indicated that he does not accept the phenomenon of human trafficking, which targets Africans in particular, whether in Tunisia or abroad.

Updated: March 09, 2023, 1:48 PM