I was accused of making false claims (in and outside the tweet) about the paperwork for a carte de séjour or residence permit that I had submitted at the same police station, once in 2020 and later in 2022. I was asked to remove the tweet immediately for having “critiqued the work” of the police staff.
I published the tweet in question after a visit to the same police station on 1 June (a day earlier) to check on the status of my residence permit for which I had re-applied in April 2022. The tweet was written in English, accompanied by a photograph of a cat crying in the hallway of the police station. In the tweet, I noted that the residence card was still not ready, and that I wished I could cry along with the crying cat (my attempt at joking about my administrative experience). When summoned, the police asked me to remove the photographs of this cat from my phone while under their supervision.
As I have previously written, my Indian citizenship means that I need to apply for a visa in order to enter Tunisia. I applied for a residence permit so that I can exit and enter the country once the visa runs out. I first applied for a residence permit in December 2020 and never received it after more than a year of waiting, leading to the second attempt in 2022. Like me, most foreign students from Sub-Saharan countries whom I have interviewed in Tunisia face the same story: the absence or immense delays in materialization of residence permits. Temporary residence cards that were issued to me were not accepted at the Tunis-Carthage airport as valid documents for entry when I tried to enter the country with them during 2021 and 2022.
Regarding my police summons, many of my Tunisian colleagues found surprising that, first of all, Tunisian police check Twitter (which is largely Anglophone); second of all, that police check posts not only in Arabic and French but also in English; thirdly, that while non-Tunisians might be less likely to face the type of police intimidation that I faced, the probability is also determined by the nationality of the non-Tunisian in question (with Global South folks being more precarious than Global North folks).
In late June 2022, following the tweet incident, I was accused by the same set of police officers of having hidden from them the fact that I had previously applied for residence permit. In December 2020, I had indeed applied for a residence permit at the same police station, and had no incentive to hide such a detail. I was asked to pay 250 dinars in penalty charges for not being in possession of the temporary permit issued to me in December 2020. Never in my or my lawyer’s reading of Tunisian im/migration laws had we heard of such a penalty charge; I refused to pay the penalty.
Arbitrary border rules as a site of corruption
Thanks to the legal support funded by Terre d’asile Tunisie, I was able to finally get a residence permit on 17 August 2022, after almost two years of facing the Kafkaesque administration’s repeated ‘erj3 b3d chhar’ (come back after a month). But this permit expired on 30 September 2022, meaning it was valid for less than a month and a half. On 29 September 2022, after submitting a new application again, I was given a new temporary residence permit that rendered my status neither fully legal nor fully illegal. For example, I was accused of being ‘illegal’ when I was leaving the country in December 2022, in spite of having been reassured of my legality by the permit-issuing body. The person who introduced himself as airport border police chief accused me of having spent between five and six months in Tunisia without legal documentation, took me to their office at the airport, and pressured me to pay a penalty charge which I refused to pay. I suspect that this was a bribe being labeled as a penalty charge.
In addition, many of my 60-dinar stamps have been stolen while passing through the border police at the Tunis-Carthage airport, both while leaving and entering the country. Every time I leave the country, I am expected to pay a 60-dinar leaving tax in the form of a stamp, even though, according to the law, I am exempt from this tax as a foreign student. In July 2022, when I first noticed the sudden absence of stamps from my passport while entering Tunisia, I was accused of having removed the stamps myself by the border police. When I entered the country in early January 2023, two of the 60-dinar stamps which were glued into my passport went missing. I suspect that these stamps are resold by the border police—another form of petty corruption.
Before leaving the country a few days later in January 2023, I spent sleepless nights wondering if I would be stopped by the border police and accused of the crimes that they had themselves committed (stealing and reselling stamps) or if I would be accused of being ‘illegal.’ Police accusations against racialized migrants come in the format of ‘guilty until proven innocent’, and I have no way to prove that it was not me who had removed these stamps.
Why write this testimony?
The fact that I hold a Global South passport makes my legal status in Tunisia immensely precarious. At the same time, my position as a researcher at Global North institutions offers me privileges that enable me to write this testimony under conditions of non-anonymity. I can openly reveal the violent border regime in Tunisia that makes it impossible for Global South migrants to live with dignity.
I have used my affiliation with Global North institutions to protect me even though the institutions themselves have not directly protected me. For example, my repeated insistence that I was affiliated with the French research institute (IRMC) under the Embassy of France dissolved, to some extent, tensions with the police of Bab Souika. At the same time, I was refused support from the Embassy of France and the Embassy of the United States because (as the official statement goes) even though I am a student in these countries, I am not their citizen. The Embassy of India refused to listen to me when I went there, stating that issues relating to residence permits are considered “internal matters” of the Tunisian government in which they will not interfere.
I write this testimony well aware of the intense police violence against migrants from Sub-Saharan African countries. During my research interviews, many of these migrating women and men have told me of false claims used by Tunisian police (municipal police, traffic police, and border police) to arrest, imprison, and/or threaten to deport them. I am aware that, unlike most of them, I can leave the country. I have financial resources to pay for arbitrary penalties I have been charged by the municipal police in Bab Souika (in June 2022) and the border police (in December 2022), and I have social ties that have supported me through these arbitrary accusations.
As I write these words, I feel guilt for occupying this space with my story because I know of too many cases worse than mine. I wish I could let my Ivorian and Congolese interlocutors—young men who work whatever day jobs they can find in construction or the transportation sector in Tunis—talk about their confrontations with police as they sought to procure residence permits; about the absence of these permits after being asked to pay multiple bribes; about being stopped by traffic police at intersections while riding in taxis, being falsely accused of carrying drugs and then forced to sign false testimonies in Arabic (which they cannot read) at the police station; about borrowing money which they know they can never pay back in order to hire a lawyer to get them out of arbitrary arrest.
I fear that the publication of this testimony may make it impossible for me to re-enter Tunisia again. But the door I see closing on me now has hardly ever been open! It breaks my heart to think of the impossibility of being home again in Tunis. But it has also become impossible for me to live under the constant fear of being under surveillance and living in the liminal space where I am neither legal nor illegal. I know of many racialized migrants living in Tunisia, who are tired of living under surveillance and facing humiliation and legal liminality, and for whom the only option is to ‘take the boat.’ It is the global border regime filled with petty corruption which forces them to face death, and which thereby murders them.
I hope that this testimony opens up a conversation about the deliberate continuation of outdated migration laws (dating from 1968) in Tunisia; about the non-transparency of border control, maintained because it serves as a site for corruption, about the complete impunity of police in praxis, and about the continuous fear and humiliation that racialized migrants experience in Tunisia. To honor the words of the late Jamila Debbech Ksiksi, Black activist and ex-member of parliament, we are all inhabitants of Tunisia irrespective of our citizenship and we all have the right to live with dignity, equality, and justice.