Articles published in this space do not necessarily reflect Nawaat's opinions.

According to a video released by “Refugees in Libya” on X (formerly Twitter), the protest camp in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis was attacked by police early on the morning of May 3, 2024. “Hundreds of women and children have been crowded into buses,” the narrator of the video notes. Around 500 black migrants from Chad, Sudan, and South Sudan were taken to the borders with Algeria or Libya to be “dumped” there. Later in the video, a young migrant man on one of these buses notes (in Arabic), “we are being forcefully expelled to Algeria” without food and water. “Women and children,” different interlocutors reiterate, in the hope of arousing some pity among viewers. Black migrant men know that they are never seen as deserving of empathy!

The protest camp that was dismantled by the police was set up by refugees and asylum seekers in February 2023 in order to “demand protection and immediate evacuation to a safe country” from international bodies like the UNHCR and the IOM. After President Kais Saied’s anti-sub-Saharan migrant statement on February 21, 2023 which triggered state- and civilian-supported violence against anyone seen as “African,” over a hundred black migrants set up a camp in front of the IOM and UNHCR offices in Tunis, hoping to receive aid and support from these organizations. Yet they were met with the steady inaction of both organizations whose very mandate is to provide humanitarian support to migrants. Instead, the UNHCR and IOM regularly called upon Tunisian police to surveil on these migrants.

Beginning in June 2023 along with financial aid discussions with the European Union and the IMF, the Tunisian state started to arrest and expel black migrants into the desert regions at the borders with Algeria and Libya. At least 3,700 migrants were expelled and 25 migrant deaths were recorded until October 2023. It is in this context that civil society actors pointed to the European Union’s border externalization policies as a motivating factor behind this rising anti-“African” violence.

Early in the morning on May 3, 2024, the entire protest camp was forcefully cleared by the Tunisian police, which emptied tents housing black migrants, including many migrant families who were subsequently bussed away. Since Saied’s statement last year, what is clear is that the targeting of “irregular Africans” is not so much about their undocumented status as it is about their blackness. And Saied’s populist politics have come to depend upon a quest for racial purity in Tunisia—a cheap (and extremely dangerous) replacement of Tunisians’ demands for dignity.

Anti-“African” violence not about undocumented status

It is true that most of the around 30,000-50,000 sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia are “irregular” or undocumented. Their status, however, is a part of a larger problem involving migration governance policy in Tunisia where all migrants, regardless of where they are from, find it impossible to procure residence permits. This includes migrants from other Arab countries (who totaled around 22,000 in 2022) as well as ‘white’ European migrants (around 11,000 in 2022) living in Tunisia. As many black migrants I interviewed in Tunisia between 2020 and 2022 noted, they are “made illegal by the Tunisian state” which refuses to provide them residence permits even after they follow official procedures.

European migrants residing in Tunisia have recourse to a number of administrative procedures in order to not endure the reality of being undocumented. While in Tunis, I met many French and Italian migrants living in Tunisia who would leave and enter the country on tourist visas every three months (i.e. validity of their visa-free period). Those who did over-stay their visa period, and who had hence become “irregular,” saw the 20-dinar-per-week overstay penalty as a simple administrative step rather than an occasion when they might face police harassment or arrest. This is not the case for black migrants, whether so-called ‘transit migrants’ or students. Black students are often arrested by the Tunisian police, regardless of their legal status. In March 2024, AESAT’s former president Christian Kwongang, a student from Cameroon, was arbitrarily arrested and detained at Ouardia when he went to pick up his residence permit (carte de séjour) at the police station.

What this indicates is that black migrants are all considered “irregular” regardless of their actual legal status in the same way that white migrants are all considered “regular” regardless of their actual legal status. This is because all migrants who are categorized as black carry a social and political stigma which labels them as criminals, either as undocumented foreigners or potential candidates for harga (clandestine migration).

This is a result of the historical and contemporary construction of all black individuals (including migrants) as morally degraded. In Tunisia, I often heard (usually non-black) Tunisians describe black migrants and black Tunisians as having an excess of sexuality, being prone to criminal actions, and being uncivilized. All black individuals in Tunisia are regarded as perpetually suspect. Today, this anti-blackness is most blatantly manifest as anti-“Africanness.”

Anti-“African” discourse and violence as anti-blackness

The violence that Tunisia has witnessed since the anti-sub-Saharan migrant statement made by Saied is largely linked to anti-blackness. This is clear in the targeting of anyone who is seen as “African”: black migrants as well as black Tunisians. Since Saied’s xenophobic remarks in 2023, many black Tunisians have reported being stopped and harassed by the police and civilians who assumed that they were “African.” Today, anti-“African” campaigns are resulting in racialized threats directed at black Tunisian activists and their associations. This is currently the case of Saadia Mosbah, president of the Association M’nemty, and Ghofrane Binous.

To say that black migrants have become a scapegoat of Saied’s populist politics makes the anti-“African” discourse and violence appear to be a new phenomenon. But anti-“African” discourse in Tunisia is not new. What we are witnessing is rather a continuation of a long process of racialization and stigmatization of black individuals in Tunisia. All black individuals, whether they are black Tunisians or black migrants, are assumed to be from “Africa,” a socio-political construction that places Tunisia outside the African continent. These individuals are assumed to be morally inferior, an assumption which justifies the country’s historical and contemporary exploitation of black persons—both during the past system of slavery as well as in the present-day context of domestic and agricultural work. 

While anti-“African” discourse and violence are a part of a longer genealogy of anti-blackness in Tunisia, the current context also represents a shift: from an implicit to an explicit project of racial purity.

From dignity to racial purity?

“Work, Freedom, Dignity!” was a chant that filled the streets across Tunisia between December 2010 and January 2011, eventually bringing down the authoritarian rule of Ben Ali. Dignity has remained a constant quest since the revolution itself, as constant humiliation continues to fill the lives of Tunisians. Public sector employees are never sure when their salaries will come; the unemployed are never sure when they will be able to find jobs; young mothers are never sure whether or not they will be able to procure milk for their children.

So what has become of dignity? Nadia Marzouki argues that Saied’s populist politics have appropriated collective demands for dignity and reframed them as “an exclusionary project of purity,” or nadhafa. During the campaign leading to his election in 2019, Saied presented himself as an incarnation of this political purity: he ran as an independent candidate, promised to defend “the people,” and to eradicate corruption. Since coming to power and especially following his coup d’etat on July 25, 2021, his policies have been directed at purifying the state by arbitrarily arresting opposition members as well as individuals seen as a national threat on the basis of Decree 54. Since early 2023, Saied’s purification project has become a demographic one, as he made clear in his statement on February 21, 2023. Since then, the state has pursued an agenda of racial purification in Tunisia, of making the country ndhif (a term often associated with pale skin color), “Arabo-Muslim” and “non-African.”

This racial purity project has grown out of many conspiracy theories that were already prominent in Tunisia prior to 2023. “Tunisia will become 100 percent African in twenty years,” many Tunisians fearfully told me during my fieldwork in the country between 2020 and 2022. They noted the imminent moral doom of the Tunisian people if “African” migrants continued to “invade” Tunisia. Unfortunately, these conspiracy theories have grown exponentially since 2023, resulting in recurrent anti-migrant protests, especially in Sfax. Today, the humiliation and death of black migrants have come to be seen as a political and social remedy to broken social welfare and the absence of fair governance structures.

And so the quest for dignity has been rendered a quest for racial purity.