Racial violence is driving black Sub-Saharan students home

Students from Sub-Saharan African countries are warning they are ready to abandon degree courses in Tunisian universities and colleges, fleeing this North African country in the wake of the mass arrests of compatriots and racial violence.

The embassies of Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have asked their citizens to stay home while the Democratic Republic of the Congo government has engaged with Tunisian diplomats on home soil. The governments of Mali, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have also begun repatriation efforts.

Christian Kwongang, president of the Tunisian Association of Sub-Saharan Students (Association des Étudiants et Stagiaires Africains en Tunisie – AESAT), said that, as of 7 March, at least 400 Sub-Saharan African students had been arrested in immigration sweeps by police, and there had been about 30 racially motivated physical attacks against black African students over the past year.

These xenophobic and racial assaults have ramped up in the past two weeks following comments from Tunisia’s President Kais Saied at a meeting with national security advisers reported on 22 February that “successive waves of irregular migration” may change Tunisia into “only an African country that has no affiliation to Arab and Islamic nations”.

A readout of the meeting called for “an end to this phenomenon”, accusing “hordes of irregular migrants” of changing Tunisia’s demographic make-up from an Islamic Arabic culture to an African one. In a statement released on Sunday 5 March, the presidency expressed astonishment that people considered his ideas racist.

Residency permit problems

But Tunisian human rights groups have alleged an immigration crackdown was already under way, with a press release issued on 16 February by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (Forum Tunsien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux – FTDES) claiming it had documented 300 arrests of Sub-Saharan Africans it says were “arbitrary” and ongoing.

But, Tunisian police have insisted to FTDES and others that they are lawfully implementing immigration legislation, targeting immigrants living illegally in Tunisia without residence or work permits.

In the meantime, according to a member of the executive board of AESAT, who requested anonymity, it has become more difficult for all non-white and Arab foreign students to obtain a residency permit (a carte sejour), with particular problems being faced by black Africans.

“They have increased the number of documents required to apply for the carte sejour. In the past, the normal processing fee has been TND150 (US$48) but, for students, he said, now up to TND1,000 (US$318) is being charged. Moreover, even after an application, “you may not be given your residency permit,” he said.

The Tunisian government has said it intends to better regulate the issuance of annual residency permits but has also issued a presidential decree on 19 February raising the penalties for immigrants not having a valid carte sejour to TND10,000 with possible jail time and large fines for businesses employing undocumented workers.

A spokesperson for the Union for Ivorians in Tunisia (Union des Ivoiriens en Tunisie – UIT) told University World News the organisation had received reports from detained immigrants estimating the number of people incarcerated following the recent round of arrests to be about 800.

Anti-Fascist Front

The moves have been unpopular with elements of Tunisian civil society, with a group being formed called the ‘Anti-Fascist Front’, characterising the president’s comments as racist.

On Saturday 25 February some 1,200 people marched in solidarity with Sub-Saharan Africans, denouncing the arrests, in a demonstration promoted by this new group.

The crackdown also follows efforts by the ministry of higher education to promote university education in Tunisia as an export service.

Initially, following the 2010-11 Jasmine Revolution that brought democracy to Tunisia, the numbers of foreign students studying in the country fell from 12,000 in 2009 to just 4,000 in 2014-15, according to a 2017 meeting of the Tunisian African Empowerment Forum.

Despite the impact of COVID-19, the ministry’s efforts to attract foreign students seemed to be working, with 2022 figures from German statistical research agency Statista showing there were more than 8,000 foreign university students and stagiaires (within specialist professional training in higher institutes) across the country.

University students provide Tunisia with a source of hard currency, the AESAT executive committee member stressed, arguing that courses are “expensive – we pay in euros or dollars, paying tuition fees of 3,000 and 4,000 per year”.

Although the international community has largely remained silent on the issue, the African Union has spoken out, condemning the Tunisian president’s race replacement theory and cautioning against “racialised hate speech”.

That same weekend (25 and 26 February) there were reports of racial violence across Tunisia.

Social media postings were circulated showing gangs of Tunisian men attacking black Sub-Saharan Africans. In the southern city of Sfax, one black African was murdered, claimed postings that also alleged stabbings of Sub-Saharan nationals.

Victims have posted video testimonies describing how they were assaulted and showing injuries, including a student in the northern coastal city of Bizerte who filmed himself bleeding from his head after three men set upon him on Sunday, 26 February, resulting in a fractured skull – the video was sent to University World News.

Fear has overwhelmed the community. AESAT’s committee member said “many women are particularly afraid to take the metro after one woman was attacked with a machete, cleaving her right breast open”.

Embassies of countries including Cameroon and Côte d’Ivoire have asked their citizens to remain at home and many find themselves living in a state of voluntary house arrest and under curfew. The embassies have also opened registries for those who want to be repatriated.

Daily attacks

Although, as March continues the violence has begun to subside, AESAT’s president Kwongang told University World News: “We are still getting reports of at least five attacks per day.”

The other committee member, who requested anonymity, describes living in fear, while “people bang loudly on my door shouting”.

He said he must leave his house to go to work but, for many Sub-Saharan Africans, travel has become almost impossible: “[Private] taxis won’t take black people,” he said, nor will the minibuses or collective taxis. Notices have appeared on some metro stations banning Sub-Saharans from travelling on public transport.

Most black students are staying away from class as a result, but some universities such as Ibn Khaldoun University (UIK), a private institution in Tunis, are offering tuition online. UIK’s founder Lotfi Chérif told University World News: “For the past week, we have delivered courses online. However, there are subjects such as architecture where students must come into the university, so we have laid on a special bus for them.”

Many students are Christians and a pastor of an informal evangelical church, speaking anonymously to University World News, said that he is also giving services and bible classes to these worshippers via Zoom.

Meanwhile, there have been mass evictions by Tunisian landlords. According to AESAT, more than 1,000 Sub-Saharan people have been evicted from their lodgings in the past two weeks.

Kwongang said this includes 70 students. However, they are often more fortunate than workers as they can stay with friends, while workers often find themselves sleeping on the streets.

Currently, many black Africans can be seen sleeping rough or camped out in front of the Embassy of Côte d’Ivoire in Tunis and the International Office for Migration (L’Organisation internationale pour les migrations – OIM) Tunisia office, living under plastic sheeting without access to sanitation. For both the homeless and those trapped at home unable to go shopping or visit doctors or churches, local volunteers have provided handouts of food, clothes and bedding.

And the governments of Mali, Guinea and Côte d’Ivoire have begun repatriation. Over the past 10 days, there has been intense dialogue between embassies of Sub-Saharan nations and Tunisia’s ministry of foreign affairs on enabling black Africans to leave Tunisia without incurring excessive penalties or fines.

Kwongang said more than 100 students have returned home already. Things are so bad he says that “students prefer to abandon their studies and go home than stay in Tunisia”. Cherif said that, at UIK, they are doing their best to encourage students to stay and to support them to continue their studies in safety.

Augustin Sadiki, a contributor to University World News in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, reported that Congolose students who fell victim to the violence, told the publication Info Migrants about how they were confined to their houses and unable to attend classes.

“I am too scared. Black people face harassment and all we are told is to go back home and we cannot expect to get out of my house, board a bus or a metro to go to school. I am so scared of both mental and physical attacks,” the stranded student said.

According to the Deputy Prime Minister in the DR Congo, Christophe Lutundula, the Congolese government has engaged Tunisia through the embassy.

“I met the Tunisian ambassador to DR Congo and expressed to him the deep concerns of our government with regard to the safety of our compatriots in Tunisia. I asked the ambassador to do everything possible to secure people stranded in his country,” said Lutundula.