Tunisian fatally stabbed in clash with migrants

Man, 40, was killed in Sfax amid escalation in racially motivated violence between sub-Saharan Africans and locals demanding their expulsion

Tunisians mourn at the funeral of a man who was fatally stabbed during clashes between locals and sub-Saharan African migrants in Sfax on Tuesday. AFP
Powered by automated translation

A 40-year-old Tunisian man was fatally stabbed on Monday night after getting involved in clashes between locals and sub-Saharan African migrants in the southern city of Sfax, almost 300km from the capital.

Videos online show scenes of violence in the town, with many migrants being kicked out of their homes and having their belongings set on fire.

Police used tear gas to break up the clashes and more have been deployed in recent nights in an attempt to de-escalate the situation.

A spokesman for the Sfax First Instance Court, Faouzi Masmoudi, told local radio station Mosaique that several people had been arrested, but that it was still unclear how the violence had been triggered.

A rise in anti-migrant rhetoric and racially motivated attacks – specifically targeting migrants from sub-Saharan African countries – has been observed in recent months following inflammatory statements by Tunisian President Kais Saied in February.

Mr Saied rejected what he described as “the settlement of migrants in Tunisia” and said there was a plan “to alter its demographic structure”, alluding to a conspiracy theory that alleges foreign countries want sub-Saharan Africans to replace Tunisian Arabs.

A rise in persecution of sub-Saharan migrants has been reported ever since, with many being evicted from their homes, fired from their jobs or violently attacked by Tunisians.

One migrant died in February in Sfax.

The African Union condemned both the president’s discourse and the violence targeting fellow Africans, and accused Tunisian authorities of fostering racially motivated violence.

Mr Saied spoke on Tuesday, again rejecting the idea that “Tunisia becomes a transit area and a land for the settlement of migrants from a number of African countries”.

“Tunisia does not accept to be a guard of other borders except its own,” Mr Saied added, during a meeting with the Interior Minister and other high-ranking security officials at the Interior Ministry headquarters in Tunis.

Meanwhile, at a public parliamentary session intended to be a question-and-answer session for the Health Minister, MPs accused sub-Saharan migrants of committing crimes and threatening “national security”, offering no proof.

Parliament Speaker Ibrahim Bouderbala called on President Saied to find a solution for the situation.

“We express our sympathy towards our people in Sfax and we request from President Kais Saied to immediately intervene to save it,” he said at the opening of the session on Wednesday.

Two MPs alleged, without proof, that sub-Saharan African migrants were causing a health crisis and spreading tuberculosis among Tunisians.

Independent MP Ahmed Bennour said: “As the Minister of Health is present among us today, we want to ask him if he's aware that some of these unwanted migrants might be bringing diseases to Tunisia. I've heard that two people at least in Sfax have contracted tuberculosis and anyone among us can be next.”

Issam Chouchen, an MP representing Hancha district in Sfax, said legislation was on the way.

“We will be trying to present law bills [to the President] that will aim at limiting the flow of Africans in Tunisia, that is our role as the legislature,” he told The National in the parliamentary lobby.

Mr Chouchen said the solutions the MPs will be suggesting include working out legal ways to identify undocumented migrants living in Tunisia.

“There's is no way for us to know where they come from so it becomes impossible for the Tunisian state to deport them,” he added.

Malik Kammoun, an MP representing Sakkiet Ezzite district in Sfax, told The National that the events in the governorate were “the result of years of accumulation and pressure for both locals and the sub-Saharan migrant community”.

Mr Kammoun said the tension in Sfax had increased and became more visible because the state has not intervened to find solutions. The governor's post, he added, has been vacant for months.

“The absence of decision making and political will is what led us to this state of suffocation for the migrants, who are struggling from marginalisation, exploitation and disrespect, on the one hand,” he said.

“And on the other, Tunisians feel the pressure of the current economic situation and perceive migrants as people who are here to steal their jobs and put their livelihoods at risk.”

Authorities have been policing sub-Saharan migrants' presence in the country, arresting and detaining many of them in prisons and detention centres.

A witness told The National that security forces have been inspecting buses and randomly arresting sub-Saharan African passengers.

Meanwhile, a video circulating on Twitter shows dozens of sub-Saharan Africans standing at the Tunisia-Libya border and being pushed back into Libya.

Tunisia does not have repatriation agreements in place with the migrants' countries of origin.

In recent years, particularly following the 2011 uprising, Tunisia has become a major transit destination for sub-Saharan migrants seeking to take the dangerous Mediterranean route into Europe. Many migrants perish while making the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean, and Tunisian mortuaries often find their capacities exceeded, with bodies retrieved on a daily basis.

Tensions have increased in recent months following the rise of anti-migrant sentiment in Tunisia amid economic downturn and shortages of basic necessities.

Tunis also faces growing pressure from the EU to uphold its previous border control agreements and prevent hundreds of boats from attempting to cross to Europe every day, following recent back-to-back visits from European leaders, including European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June.

Tunisia is expected to sign another agreement between the two sides, which includes further migration-related terms, in the coming days.

However, a date has yet to be set after Tunisian authorities requested an extension to review some of the deal’s clauses.

Updated: July 05, 2023, 4:58 PM