President Kais Saied lashed out against the « hordes of illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa ». He insisted upon the necessity of « urgent » measures to put an end to the « incessant flow » which he reported to be the source of « violence and crime ». These remarks, made during a National Security Council meeting on February 21, are of an unprecedented virulence that also set the tone of a statement published on the official Facebook account of the Office of the President. The statement sparked controversy on social media. The president pursued his tirade the following day, when on February 22 he visited the Tunisian Company of Pharmaceutical Industries and lashed out against those who wish to « change Tunisia’s demographic composition ». 

Saied’s remarks have emerged in a context of abounding hate speech against migrants in Tunisia. Extremely active on social media and openly xenophobic, the Tunisian Nationalist Party has demanded that undocumented sub-Saharan migrants be expelled from the country.

And evidently the Nationalist Party has found an important place for itself, its members having been granted an audience by government representatives. This has included the governor of Ariana, who received party members on December 29, 2022. One month later, on February 9, 2023, party figures also appeared on Facebook in the company of an official from the Office of the President. That such controversial remarks be regurgitated by the head of state is nevertheless a first. 

Conspiracy theory rhetoric

The president has indeed adopted the Tunisian National Party’s rhetoric. Saied points a finger at « a criminal undertaking which commenced at the beginning of this century to the end of changing Tunisia’s demographic composition. He further vilifies « third parties which received colossal financial sums beginning in 2011 in order to people the country with clandestine migrants from sub-Saharan Africa ». Behind this undertaking, Saied ventures to add, is the « unavowed » objective of despoiling Tunisia of its Arab-Muslim identity and reducing it to an exclusively African dimension.

This anti-migrant diatribe draws from the Great Replacement theory introduced in 2010 by the French writer Renaud Camus. Now central to political debates in France, this theory has since been adopted in other countries. Today it has found an audience in Tunisia, a country with a large overseas diaspora.

In France, president of the « Reconquête » (« recapture ») party Eric Zemmour lauded Saied’s discourse as a means of defending his call to expel undocumented migrants from the country. Notably, even figures of France’s extreme political right no longer utilize such virulent discourse in the interest of maintaining a certain air of respectability.

Tunisia has a population of just over 11 million people. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), only 57 thousand migrants live in the country. In comparison, Tunisia’s national survey on international migration, published in 2021 by the National Institute of Statistics (INS) and National Observatory on Migration, reports that this number is close to 59 thousand. These two bodies are not affiliated with Tunisian civil society so scorned by president Saied, but rather with the government itself. 

The arrival of migrants in Tunisia does not originate from an agenda to colonize the country, but from national policies and a regional context. The elimination of an entry visa for foreign nationals from a number of sub-Saharan countries has contributed to this migration. The visa exemption maintained for years by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was initially set up to strengthen economic exchanges with these countries. 

As a result, many migrants have set foot in Tunisia by legal means. Among these individuals are students who come to study thanks to bilateral cooperation agreements between Tunisia and their countries of origin. Furthermore, the irregular status of some students is due to convoluted administrative procedures that deter the renewal of their residency cards

More broadly speaking, for many migrants, the goal is not to remain in Tunisia—let alone colonize it—but to use it as a transit country towards their final destination: Europe. According to the survey carried out by the INS and National Observatory on Migration, close to two-thirds of sub-Saharan migrants plan to leave the country.

Arab-Muslim identity threatened?

According to the same survey, migrants in Tunisia hail primarily from the Maghreb (37%), other African countries (36.4%) and Europe (18.5%). Among the 6,068 refugees and asylum seekers, 45.4% are Syrian, according to September 2022 data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Tunis. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers come from different countries, many of which are Muslim or which have a significant Muslim population such as Libya, Mali and Eritrea.

Saied’s discourse is an indication that he has adopted theories advanced by the Tunisian Nationalist Party, calling out, for instance, the expansion of churches run by sub-Saharan migrants. The first important point to note here is, of course, that the freedoms of belief and worship are guaranteed by the Tunisian constitution. That migrants of the Christian faith have sought recourse in setting up their own places of worship is a manifestation of their resourcefulness in the absence of state intervention. Ali Belhaj, a teacher-researcher and expert in international migration, explains as much, observing that « They’ve had to come up with their own solutions. Thus we find places for worship, dining and celebration geared towards these very individuals ».

For Belhaj, the Tunisian government is absent when it comes to managing migration. Kais Saied is thus cursing a situation for which he himself is responsible. 

Complicit civil society?

The arrival of migrants by illegal means is prey for human trafficking. Traffickers’ activities are always completely illegal and involve dispossessing migrants of their rights. According to a 2022 report by the National Authority Against Human Trafficking (INLTP), 54% of human trafficking victims in 2021 were foreigners. 64% of these victims were Ivorians.

It is not civil society that encourages the arrival of migrants, but in fact the trafficking networks.

Far from facilitating the flow of migrants into Tunisia, the UNHCR has been accused by refugees and asylum seekers of leaving these individuals to fend for themselves. Finding themselves homeless and lacking financial resources, they express their desire to leave Tunisia for other countries. In July 2022, protesters organized a sit-in outside the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis. 

Certain civil society organizations such as the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), Terre d’asile, Médecins du Monde and others are working to improve the chaotic situation that migrants in Tunisia face. These associations have had to fight in order to facilitate migrants’ access to health and education. Tunisia’s constitution guarantees these rights for all individuals regardless of nationality or status. 

Civil society’s role has also been to sound the alarm in cases of economic exploitation. Contrary to the Tunisian National Party’s allegations, migrant workers are not stealing jobs away from Tunisian workers. Migrants work in sectors such as food services, agriculture and construction that are spurned by the Tunisian workforce.

Kais Saied has accused migrants of violence and criminality without citing any statistics or facts to justify his claims. Contacted by Nawaat, the Interior Ministry’s department head of Information and Communication, Faker Bouzghaya, affirms that the department does not dispose of statistics on the number of migrants involved in criminal activities. « Our statistics are not based on ethnic or racial criteria » he explained to Nawaat.

In sum, the statements by president Saied appear to draw essentially from the prejudice and racism that is thriving on social media today. In doing so, Tunisia’s head of state has adopted a language that is racist and xenophobic, leaving migrants exposed to public condemnation and police repression.