Scepticism over president’s olive branch to foreigners

Tunisia’s President Kais Saied seemed to be rolling back on his determination to impose “urgent measures” to reduce what he called the “hordes” of Sub-Saharan migrants, but black students say nothing has changed for them.

Saied has offered up the promise of speeding up issuing residency permits, known as cartes sejour, and even waiving the penalties for overstays by Sub-Saharan migrant workers and students.

The president expressed “surprise” at the rush of accusations that his words were racist, adding that: “Tunisia is an African country with distinction and it is an honour for us, Africans are our brothers.” He also promised to extend the free visa for Sub-Saharan Africans to six months and facilitate repatriation for those people who want it.

However, he has fallen short of apologising for statements that the African Union called “racialised hate speech” on 25 February.

The Tunisian Association of African Students (Association des Étudiants et Stagiaires Africains en Tunisie – AESAT) told University World News that although the surge in violence experienced following the president’s comments has subsided, Saied has not made good on his promises made on 5 March. Students are still struggling without cartes séjour and exit penalties have not been lifted.

Call on president to retract statements

For black Africans living in Tunisia, however, this has failed to tamp down fear, with many feeling that the president had sanctioned racial violence.

Certainly in the immediate aftermath, there were reports of Sub-Saharan Africans being severely wounded, raped, and even one confirmed murder and violent evictions. AESAT said that more than 1,000 black Africans have since been evicted from their homes, including 70 students.

An official from the ministry of the interior has, however, denied claims from AESAT that there had been around 400 arbitrary arrests of students since the speech.

In a meeting with the African Union on 10 March in Tunis, Saied claimed there had been “rampant accusations and campaigns [which] aim to incite public opinion against Tunisia". He pointed out that Tunisia “has its laws that apply to all and has its traditions and stability”.

However, that same day Amnesty International’s Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Heba Morayef said in a statement: “President Saied must retract his comments and order investigations to clearly signal that anti-black racist violence will not be tolerated."

Amnesty International said it had documented “at least 840 black African migrants, students and asylum seekers rounded up in several cities in Tunisia”.

Also, on 14 March the African Bar Association called on the African Union to continue to take a hard line against Saied and his government, saying it “condemns Tunisian xenophobic and racial attacks on African migrants [and] asks the African Union to call the Tunisian President Kais Saied and government to order”.

Speaking to University World News, an AESAT executive board member, who requested anonymity, said that although the violence had abated, life was still very hard for the students: “there has been no change in the mistreatment of black students in police stations and no issuance of cartes du séjour”.

Repatriation flights

The embassies of Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea (Conakry) and Mali have already been sending planes to facilitate repatriation. According to a board member, “around 700 people have returned on five flights to Cote d'Ivoire alone”, but only 54 students are back in Guinea (Conakry) and just 50 in Mali. “Mali sent its presidential plane but it only has 50 seats,” he said.

He explained that Cote d’Ivoire is now flying repatriation flights three times a week returning approximately 250 people at a time.

Despite this rapid response by African governments to this crisis, the list of people seeking repatriation grows daily. “There are over 3,000 people [in general – not just students] already registered at the embassy of Cote d’Ivoire alone and every day the lists grow longer,” said the board member.

He added that there were particular problems for students living outside Tunis who were worried about travelling to the capital for flights: “The situation is far more difficult; there are people in Sfax who are still afraid to come out because of the police.”

Besides the arrests and detention he explained that “we are investigating the disappearance of two of our students, they were arrested and never heard from since”. AESAT has called for a meeting with the ministry of interior for explanations but told University World News that they have had no response.

University World News has asked the interior ministry to confirm arrest figures, explain the disappearances and ask why they have yet to respond to AESAT’s meeting request.

The board member also claimed that black African students are facing penury and hunger because agents in post offices and banks refuse to hand over money transferred to them via Western Union: “There are students in halls of residence who don’t have money to eat or buy water.”

For the foreseeable future life is still very uncomfortable for black students. “It’s the dirty looks you get, the general attitude towards us, it makes me feel sick,” said one student.

University World News is awaiting further comment from the Tunisian government.