‘I feel like I am living in a prison here’ – Student
They and executives of the Association for African Students and Interns in Tunisia (AESAT – Association des Étudiants et Stagiaires Africains en Tunisie) told University World News that many banks and branches of La Poste Tunisienne are refusing to hand over the money sent by their parents and blocking them from opening personal bank accounts if they lack a full residency permit – a carte de séjour définitif.
The Tunisian government has been slow to issue these documents to students, who told University World News this is causing serious financial hardship and, in some cases, preventing them from buying food and drink.
Black African students say these administrative problems are evidence of widespread and institutionalised racism they have experienced since arriving in Tunisia, including when racial violence followed President Kais Saied’s call in February for “urgent measures” to counter what he called “hordes” of Sub-Saharan migrants.
Speaking to University World News, a 25-year-old Malian commerce stagiaire, or intern, explained her struggles with government services: “I notice the attitude of the administration staff is if you only speak French [Tunisia’s second language – like Mali, the country was once controlled by France], they become frustrated with you and are difficult.
“I found if I speak just a little bit of Arabic their attitude towards me softens a little.” But still, after more than two years in Tunisia, she has yet to receive the full carte de sejour definitive.
She says that this has caused many problems, especially in receiving her grant money: “Most banks refuse to give Western Union payments,” she said, although receiving “Moneygram is better”.
Also, with Mali currently on the grey-list of global anti-money laundering institution the Financial Action Task Force, or FATF, “I can only pick up small amounts of money at a time.
“The only place I can pick up cash is from the post office in the airport, which is a long way from where I live, so I have to pay for a long taxi ride there and back,” said the student.
A 20-year-old Côte d’Ivoire intern, training to be an automotive mechanic had a similar story to tell: “I applied for my card in April 2021 after I started my course, and I’ve never received the definitive card. They keep telling me it is not ready and to come back.” As a result: “I’ve been arrested twice by police and taken to the police station for not having the definitive card.”
The Malian commerce student said such arrests are very damaging for black African students: “It really affects you psychologically. People see you being arrested – they don’t know why, and assume you are a thief or something.”
A 20-year-old Ivorian marketing and multimedia student explained that many of his fellow students were struggling to receive money: “We have our ways around it, other ways to receive money, but it is not easy. Many people do not get their money, so cannot pay for the canteen service in student foyers.”
Ivorian students are a tight-knit community, he explained, and “we support each other; we gather at friends’ houses to cook and eat,” but all three students University World News spoke to admitted that often they go hungry.
Silence from ministry
A member of the AESAT executive bureau, himself an Ivorian university student studying IT, told University World News: “We have met with the ministry of higher education to ask for help with this matter regarding banks and the post office and they said they would investigate.”
University World News has also contacted the ministry, asking them for comments about these problems but has yet to receive a response.
Belgium-based NGO Avocats Sans Frontières (ASF – Lawyers without Borders) is supporting AESAT by investigating why many banks are not honouring students’ money transfers.
Speaking under conditions of anonymity, a senior ASF lawyer told University World News: “For the past year, the Tunisian Post Office and certain banks will only accept carte de séjour definitive, not just a passport,” adding that only the BIAT bank (Banque Internationale Arabe de Tunisie) will honour a Western Union transfer with just a passport alone.
The lawyer said no bank has yet admitted to ASF receiving any “official circular from the Tunisian Central Bank” [Banque Centrale de Tunisie] directing them to withhold payouts of international transfers. The ASF is still collecting information before approaching the central bank to discuss the issue.
The lawyer said ASF believes that the post office and banks were acting independently in a racially discriminatory way: “We have observed many expressions of discrimination since the crisis, and this behaviour is certainly discriminatory.”
The 20-year-old Ivorian marketing student said academic life in Tunisia is often disheartening: “We pay for accommodation, food and care, but often foyers are dirty, the windows are broken and we are not even allowed to use heaters in winter nor fans or air conditioning when it is hot.”
Speaking about the residential hall managers employed by the ministry of higher education and scientific research and the ministry of vocational training and employment, he said: “The chefs de foyer don’t help you.”
When his friend the mechanic intern was attacked by local boys who split open his scalp, he recalled: “It was clear he needed to go to hospital for stitches, but the chef de foyer said: ‘Oh it’s not that bad’ and wouldn’t take him to the hospital. I treated his wound with iodine, but the wound got infected.”
University World News noted the poor state of the canteen in the halls of residence at this Greater Tunis area professional and mechanical training and education campus where the interview was conducted. It was dirty, in poor repair, with plates of leftover food still lying around on tables.
The Malian commerce intern said that, although she has many good Tunisian friends who have helped her and fed her when she has run out of money, she was shocked at the intensity of racism in Tunisia: “I thought I would study in Tunisia to get experience of another culture, to get a good education, but I was so shocked when I first encountered the racism here.”
She describes gangs of boys following her and cornering her and her friends, shouting abuse and inflicting physical violence, once touching her in a restaurant and then beating her back so hard, she had to go to hospital. She did not report the assaults to the police as she did “not have the strength to go through all those legal procedures”.
One friend, she claimed, was attacked by a group of men on scooters and was stabbed: “The abuse is constant – on the metro, there’s always someone saying disgusting, filthy things, baiting me to show them my carte sejour, calling me black and telling me to go back home,” she said.
The marketing student explained that, since President Saied issued a decree on 19 February raising the penalties for immigrants not having a valid carte sejour to TND10,000 (US$3,300), with possible jail time and large fines for businesses employing undocumented workers, life has become even tougher: “Without a carte de sejour now, you cannot work and you cannot rent an apartment.”
He says that the carte de sejour is now used against black students in everyday life: “Even when you go into an ordinary shop to buy a bottle of water, the shopkeeper demands that I show him my carte de sejour. They do it to unsettle you.”
The Malian intern said that, on several occasions, taxi drivers have aggressively demanded that she show them a carte de sejour before allowing her into the car. “I was with sick people I had taken to the hospital and the driver was shouting at me: ‘I don’t take blacks’, and I just started shaking.”
She says her real concern is that, without the carte de séjour definitive, she cannot leave the country: “The problem is that, without the carte de séjour you cannot enter and exit the country without paying a penalty and, once you leave without it, you cannot re-enter.”
She explained that she has about four or five months to complete her training, but she worries that she will be stuck in Tunisia while she waits for the training centre to issue her diploma: “I know that AESAT will push for this, but, honestly, it feels like a kidnapping. I feel like I am living in a prison here.”