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Racist Violence Against Migrants in Tunisia Reflects Europe’s Colonial Legacy

The Tunisian president is using sub-Saharan migrants as scapegoats for the economic crisis and food shortages caused by imperialism, sparking a wave of racist violence and xenophobic policies.

Nadia Ben Omar

July 26, 2023
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Fethi Belaid/AFP via Getty Images

Riots and pogroms against sub-Saharan migrants erupted in Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, in early July. Locals set tires on fire, blocked roads, and roamed the streets armed with sticks and machetes, rounding up sub-Saharans in what they believed to be a necessity to protect Sfax and its residents from the migrants and describing their vigilantism as “a national duty”. Horrifying videos show Tunisians carrying out pogroms against sub-Saharans; migrants, fearing for their lives, desperately chanted “Long live Tunisia!” to defray the anger against them. Thousands of migrants gathered in train and bus stations to flee the violence in Sfax towards other cities in Tunisia. 

This crisis had been escalating rapidly since early July, when a scuffle between locals ended with the fatal stabbing of a Tunisian man. Calls for vengeance arose at the victim’s funeral, and clashes between residents and migrants were reported in several districts. According to Faouzi Masmoudi, spokesman for the Sfax prosecutor, three migrants of Cameroonian origin were arrested as suspects in the stabbing. 

The arrests did little to quell the anger of the locals, which was further amplified by President Kais Saied’s July 4 statement, reiterating that the wave of migrants to Tunisia is the work of “criminal groups” that aim to “disturb the peace of Tunisians,” and that “Tunisia will not be a resettlement land for migrants.” 

As Saied’s remarks suggest, the Tunisian government is making no effort to protect immigrants; on the contrary, the violence on the ground is being stoked by those at the top of the political order. Explicitly racist discourse comes from every sector of the Tunisian political structure, such as the baseless accusations made by two members of parliament that immigrants are causing a health crisis by spreading tuberculosis. The Tunisian General Labour Union branch in Sfax (UGTT) released a statement reiterating the accusation that immigrants are spreading infectious diseases in Tunisia. 

Authorities are deliberately stoking this crisis, and using the resulting tensions to carry out an ethnic cleansing of sub-Saharans from Sfax through mass arrests and deportation to militarized areas at Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria. Visibly sub-Saharan people are being targeted by authorities en masse, regardless of their immigration status. An estimated 700-1,000 immigrants, including students, workers, and children, have since been violently expelled by Tunisian police, left in the desert with no food or water. 

The Pattern of Hostility Towards Sub-Saharan Immigrants in Tunisia

This shockingly severe wave of anti-Black violence is a continuation of a similar surge that was instigated by president Kais Saied’s racist discourse in early 2023. According to political scientist Nadia Marzouki, “The racist lynchings occuring in Sfax are not a separate event or a glitch. It is a moral abomination enabled by Kais Saied’s ethno-nationalist discourse about purity.”

The violence against sub-Saharan migrants occurs in the context of decades of excessive debt through imperialist International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans and intense political crackdowns. Tunisian citizens have been increasingly questioning Kais Saied’s leadership, as he has been actively complicit in making the working class pay for the compounding economic crises, including shortages of basic foods and necessities exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and skyrocketing fuel prices at the direction of the IMF.

Saied has desperately sought to deflect the popular anger against his economic and political program onto Tunisia’s sub-Saharan immigrant population as part of a growing trend of right-wing populism worldwide. On February 21, he released an official statement claiming that the influx of migrants in Tunisia is a result of “a criminal structure whose aim is to make Tunisia into an African country only, non-Arab and non-Muslim” and a “funded settlement plan” that aims to “change the demographics” of Tunisia. 

The statement set in motion a wave of hate crimes and calls to deport all migrants. Sub-Saharans were attacked in their homes and on the streets. Black people in Tunisia, citizens and migrants alike, were harassed and questioned about their legal status by both citizens and authorities. 

This movement was only possible because of an existing deeply-embedded anti-Black sentiment, despite the efforts of Tunisian civil society and the organizing of anti-racist Tunisians to crush anti-immigrant attitudes.

The Racialization of Tunisia: Racism as a Colonial Legacy

The establishment of a racialized hierarchy in Tunisian society has its roots in the racial slavery that was abolished in 1846, and was intensified by the European colonization of Tunisia.    

Located at a crossroad between the African continent, the Mediterranean, and the Ottoman world, Tunisia was used by the Ottomans from the 16th century as a trade port for enslaved people from Niger Bend, Lake Chad, Darfur, the Nile Basin and Ethiopia. To legitimize racial slavery, slave-holding interests espoused a white supremacist ideology which held that Black people were innately inferior. 

To this day, many Tunisians choose not to identify as African to distance themselves from Black Africans and racial slavery. As stated by North Africa research analyst Yasmine Akrimi, “Maghrebis’ reluctance to identify as Africans might be understood in this framework as Africanity is equated with blackness. The perception of black communities in the Maghreb hence combines the status of [formerly colonized] to that of presumed [formerly enslaved].”

This divide was further exasperated with European colonialism in Tunisia in the 18th and 19th centuries, most notably through French colonialism. The recent murder of French-Algerian Nahel Merzouk by French police has brought back into question France’s legacy of racism and its role as an essential structure of colonialism in North Africa. 

White supremacy was an integral part of French colonialism in North Africa. This is best seen through le Code de L’indigénat, the penal code that codified racial segregation first in colonial Algeria, and eventually in France’s other African colonies and Indochina. It set out a system of racial classification of Algerian inhabitants, and a set of arbitrary laws that differed based on the defendant’s racial or ethnic group. L’indigénat gave native North Africans an inferior legal status to French colonists, and gave colonial authorities the right to fine and imprison members of the native population without due process.  

L’indigénat and other similar colonial laws like the Crémieux Decree effectively created new divisions between different native groups. Scholars often term this a strategy of “divide and conquer,” which is used by colonizing powers to quash unrest or mobilization attempts towards independence.

The categories within post-colonial societies inherited from colonial times are hard to uproot, and often even remobilized in the service of imperialism and neocolonialism. 

Thus, while independence from France has been won, and slavery abolished since 1846,  systemic racism against Black people in Tunisia persists in many ways, from racially segregated towns in southern Tunisia to the long history of exploiting sub-Saharan workers, who are often overworked and underpaid. 

Even 67 years after Tunisia’s independence from France, cultural and socioeconomic effects of colonialism continue to shape the social dynamics of Tunisian society. For instance, eurocentric attributes are still regarded more favorably; fairer skinned Tunisians are often thought to be “well-bred” and “better educated.” Even the perfection of the French language is still used as a measure for social class. It is still a common recurrence in Tunisia for people to look down upon those who speak French poorly, or with an Arab accent. Perfecting the Parisian French accent is considered a sign of high status and nobility, while speaking the language with any semblance of a Tunisian accent is thought of as a sign of poor class and education. 

This further proves the ever-present power structures created by French colonialism in Tunisia, and more broadly in North Africa, that places French people, whether phenotypically or linguistically, as the model for the natives to imitate.  

The Role of Neocolonial EU Immigration Policies in the Current Crisis

Despite the neocolonial linguistic and economic ties enforced by European nations on their former colonies, the European Union is still adamant on keeping migrants, especially those from ex-colonies, out of Europe. This is seen through their policies towards migrants both within Europe’s borders and beyond them.

The recent shipwreck in Greek waters is only one example of the migrant tragedies at EU borders. Europe is complicit not only by standing watch while they witness these tragedies unfold, but also by hindering rescue efforts and going as far as penalizing them. Most recently, Italian authorities detained the rescue ship Aurora for 20 days, after rescuing 39 migrants at sea. Greece has also previously sued refugee rescue activists, accusing them of espionage. 

Even immigrants who make it past both the physical and administrative barriers meant to keep them out of Europe are still subject to deportation. This is best seen through Denmark’s strong focus on the revocation of refugees’ residence permits. Of the 34,000 Syrians granted a permit to stay in Denmark since the war in Syria broke out in 2011, only a few hundred have been granted residency so far. Many asylum seekers were sent to deportation centers, with the Danish government claiming that some areas in Syria were safe for return.

In France, in addition to the systemic racist police brutality, the recent popular uprisings are also motivated by a long-standing French tradition of oppression and hostility towards its immigrant population, predominantly from its former African colonies. 

France’s, and more broadly Europe’s, contribution to the establishment of systemic racism in Tunisia is only one aspect of its role in the deterioration of the current migrant crisis in Sfax. 

In its efforts to stem migration, the EU has also been externalizing its borders towards southern Mediterranean countries, often through deals done with totalitarian governments like Tunisia’s. 

On June 11, an EU delegation discussed the “readmission” of migrants back to Tunisia with Kais Saied. The EU delegation also offered to provide Tunisia with over 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion U.S. dollars)  as part of an aid package to “help the financial situation in the country and help stem the migration to Europe.” The call for EU assistance was led by Italian rightwing Giorgia Meloni and former Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. By June 20, 26 million euros were allocated by France towards the training of Tunisian border patrol officers, and 100 million euros were allocated by the EU towards “border management” and search efforts in Tunisia. 

Kais Saied has since publicly announced that Tunisia is “only responsible for protecting its own borders.” However, the numbers show that Tunisia may have taken up the role of protecting European borders after all. 

As Tunisia’s largest port city, Sfax is a main departure point of clandestine migration towards Europe. In 2023 alone, over 30,000 migrants crossed to the Italian island of Lanpedusa from Sfax. Between June 27 and 29 of this year, 65 clandestine immigration attempts towards Europe were intercepted by Tunisian border patrol, with 47 of those attempts departing from Mahdia and Sfax. Of the 1,879 migrants brought back to Mahdia and Sfax, 98 percent were of sub-Saharan origin. 

These imperialist deals don’t take into account the immigrants’ free will or safety. After all, many of these immigrants only intended for Tunisia to be a transit country, as promised by UN agencies in several cases. In addition, in many instances, Tunisia has the same conditions that immigrants were fleeing in their home countries. 

With the persistence of climate change and political violence, immigration from Africa towards Europe has only been growing. Recent escalations in the region like the Sudanese conflict have caused a rise in the number of displaced people. With the lack of adequate preparation to take in migrants in Tunisia, a crisis is only a matter of time. 

It is important to understand the systems of oppression at play that are contributing to the current immigration crisis in Tunisia. What’s happening in Tunisia is not an isolated event, but rather an extension of a wider European effort that aims to use whatever means necessary to keep migrants out of Europe. It’s all part of the larger system of border violence that flows outward from the metropole along the fault lines established by colonialism.

While the uprising in France is yet another sign of North African indignation towards the legacy of French colonialism, working people in North Africa should be linking the struggle against racist anti-immigrant efforts by Europe to a broader fight for complete liberation from Europe’s colonial legacies and imperialist policies. Appealing for more border control will not solve the crisis, as both the government and the border police are there to perpetuate the same capitalist system, which is the root of most mass migration movements to begin with. 

After all, the so-called refugee “crisis” is a symptom of the legacy of colonialism, which continues to strangle places like Tunisia even as it devastates sub-Saharan Africa. It’s important for the working class in Tunisia, and more broadly North Africa, to make common cause with the migrants against the capitalist order, both for the sake of fellow African immigrants from the south of the Sahara, and the sake of the fundamental right to self-determination. 

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