A protest in solidarity with Sub-Saharan migrants and was organized in Tunis on February 25 after the xenophobic comments made by Tunisian president Kais Saied | Photo : Reuters
A protest in solidarity with Sub-Saharan migrants and was organized in Tunis on February 25 after the xenophobic comments made by Tunisian president Kais Saied | Photo : Reuters

Statements by President Kais Saied targeting sub-Saharan migrants have caused an outcry. Critics say they reflect the government’s anti-migrant stance and create a distraction from the failed economy.

Since the president made a number of xenophobic comments on February 21, physical and verbal attacks against Black people in Tunisia have multiplied. "One of our members, a Malian, was attacked on Wednesday around 2 p.m. by young Tunisians in his home in Tunis […] Another was thrown from the first floor of his building by his landlord," the Association of African Students and Interns in Tunisia (AESAT) told InfoMigrants.

The president’s accusation that sub-Saharan migrants are causing "violence, crime and unacceptable acts" provoked a wave of indignation among NGOs and human rights groups. But according to Vincent Geisser, a Tunisia expert at the French National Research Center (CNRS), this discourse does not come out of nowhere. "Kais Saied’s speech is based on the denunciation of foreign intrusion in Tunisian society. He accuses the opposition of being in the hands of foreign groups and NGOs of serving foreign interests," he told InfoMigrants.

Identitarian discourse

"[Saied] also fosters an identitarian discourse based on a notion of pure Tunisian identity as a Arab-Muslim country, with the idea of returning to real values," Geisser added.

The president claimed on February 21 that irregular immigration in Tunisia amounted to a "criminal enterprise […] aimed at changing the demographic composition of Tunisia," to transform the country into an "African-only" one and erase its "Arab-Muslim" character. This idea draws on the "Great Replacement", a racist conspiracy theory invented by Renaud Camus and regularly employed by the French far right.

With this statement, Tunisia went, in a few hours, "from racism on social networks to state-sanctioned racism," Romdhane Ben Amor of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) told InfoMigrants.

Covering up the crisis

According to Ben Amor, Kais Saied is looking to create "a new enemy for Tunisians," so that he can dodge responsibility for the economic crisis the country is going through.

"Since 2021, and even before that, Tunisia has been embroiled in a deep social and economic crisis, with shortages of essential goods like milk or coffee. Denouncing foreigners also serves to cover that up," Geisser agreed. "In this context, the weak link is sub-Saharan migrants," who are often accused of taking Tunisians’ jobs.

Still, the economic crisis in Tunisia has hit young Tunisians and sub-Saharans with equal force. Irregular migrant departures towards Italy have been at their highest for a year and Tunisia is failing to prove to Europe that it can contain them. Saied’s hostility towards irregular immigrants could be a way for him to show a stronger face abroad.


Among those targeted by the president are African students. Following his racist statements, the AESAT student group strongly advised them to stay off the streets for fear of being attacked.

The organization says the authorities' stance on undocumented migrants in the country is hypocritical. "Yes, there are some irregular migrant students in Tunisia, but it’s really hard to get a permit here," a member of the organization said. 

"To get a student permit, you need three documents: proof of university enrolment, proof of tuition fee payment, and a lease. But landlords often refuse to sign a lease contract because they do not want to pay taxes on rent," a source who wished to remain anonymous told InfoMigrants. "Even when we go to the police station with all the documents needed for a permit, we experience unacceptable racism."

'Cheap labor'

Vincent Geisser also says it's in many employers’ interests to keep migrants in an irregular situation "in order to exploit them."

"In Tunisia, the informal work sector makes up 30% of Tunisian employment, he said. "It’s even more for sub-Saharan people. And people collude to make this system persist […] that allows them to keep a cheaper workforce."

In the short term, however, the informal Tunisian economy could suffer as a result of the wave of hostility targeting sub-Saharan Africans. Many have already opted to leave the country.

The Ivory Coast embassy in Tunisia has launched a census of its nationals wishing to come back home. The Mali embassy is also offering its nationals to join a "voluntary return" program. The Cameroon embassy said in a press release that its nationals could get in touch for any information or procedural needs related to voluntary return.


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