Black students were also targeted in expulsions, says group

Sub-Saharan university students were part of mass border expulsions by Tunisian security forces recently. In the meantime, universities within the North African country have been noticing a marked decline in black African students registering, humanitarians claim.

Said Abdullah, president of the Tunisian humanitarian association Enfants de la Lune, confirmed that his organisation helped the Tunisian Red Crescent to retrieve at least three university students of Sub-Saharan nationalities from the harsh border zone between Tunisia and Libya.

This followed international criticism of mass expulsions by Tunisian security forces of Sub-Saharan Africans across the border into Libya this July, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on its website.

Universities have already noted the impact of the waves of racial violence that have increased in Tunisia this year. Security personnel are reportedly also targeting students already registered. A spokesperson for the Tunisian Association of Sub-Saharan Students (Association des Étudiants et Stagiaires Africains en Tunisie, AESAT) said that, when parents and students contact them inquiring about studying in Tunisia, “we can only speak the truth … Tunisia is not safe for black people”.

Police rounded up at least 2,000 Sub-Saharan people and expelled them across the Tunisian border into a military buffer zone between Tunisian and Libyan controlled by Tunisian security and military forces, Enfants de la Lune said.

Phones confiscated, smashed

HRW sounded the alarm on 2 July after hearing that a group of 48 people were being expelled across the Tunisian border at Ras Jedir on the Mediterranean coast into Libya. Most of those expelled told HRW activists that their phones had been confiscated and smashed by police, but some managed to hide their devices, allowing them to communicate with HRW’s reporter and to film videos that circulated through social and news media.

An expelled migrant called Israil told University World News: “We have no water and have to drink from the sea.” He also reported that, among those expelled were university students and refugees.

HRW refugee and migrant rights researcher Lauren Seibert said the situation was urgent “because, not only were people in the group reportedly abused and beaten during the process of arrest, detention, and expulsion, but they were deposited in an area that is extremely dangerous”. On 13 July 2023, the US Department of State issued a warning against all travel to, among other places, the Ras Jedir area, due to terrorism.

At the time, international humanitarian organisations were barred from accessing the area to offer aid and support to sick people, pregnant women, and children. Tunisian President Kais Saied decreed that only the Tunisian Red Crescent could take charge of the expelled Africans, pulling some back into Tunisia.

An agreement was subsequently struck with the internationally recognised Libyan government, based in Tripoli, that controls this border zone, about sharing responsibility for the expelled Africans, France24 reported on 10 August 2023.

Students in ‘terrible state’

Abdullah told University World News that the association supported the Sub-Saharan Africans the Red Crescent retrieved from the border zone and confirmed that university students from Tunis were among those expelled.

“There were three university students; they were very sick and in a terrible state. They were treated in hospital and, once they recovered, the [UN] International Organisation for Migration took charge of them, returning them to Tunis.” The students’ whereabouts could not be confirmed.

An expert on Libyan politics and diplomacy who requested anonymity told University World News that Libyan authorities had complained about the mass expulsions, leading to dialogue between the Tunisian government and the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli over the expulsions, which “for the moment, [have] slowed down”.

Harassment of black Sub-Saharan African students increased following Saied’s “great replacement speech” in February (2023), in which he spoke of “hordes of migrants’ changing the demographic of Tunisia from an Arabic culture to an “African” one.

Incidents of harassment, violence, arrest, and imprisonment of black African students by both Tunisian citizens and police have since been documented by AESAT and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux, FTDES).

Black students denied permits

Former political prisoner, sociologist, and journalist Chaima Issa, a vocal member of the opposition movement the National Salvation Front, told University World News that, when she was first arrested in February and held in the Bouchoucha detention centre in Tunis, “I was held in a room with many Sub-Saharan women. Six of them were university students. They were so distressed and frightened, not knowing what would happen to them.”

Issa was released from detention in July. AESAT’s spokesperson confirmed that, in February and March, “a dozen or so students” were detained in prison.

FTDES spokesperson Romdhane Ben Amor said that black African students are still denied essential papers, including the carte de sejour residency permit. “They suffer from racial targeting because they have different coloured skin and do not speak Arabic.” He added that, in general, mistreatment of Sub-Saharan people was “multiplying”, and that they are now expelled across Tunisia’s borders directly”, even if these border expulsions have slowed.

Ben Amor said private universities in Tunisia reported 20%-24% fewer new students from Sub-Saharan Africa registering.

The AESAT spokesperson said that students who would have applied to Tunisian universities in the past, now “prefer to go to Morocco, Turkey, or Canada”. He added that, after February, “the students were afraid and disgusted, because what passed was inhumane. The most difficult thing to understand is that there were no lawyers willing to protect them – neither during the period of arbitrary arrests nor during the wave of violent attacks, evictions and arrests by the police”.

Lotfi Cherif, president of the private University Ibn Khaldoun (UIK) in Soukra, Tunis, told University World News that, although the final date for registration is 29 November, his institution is seeing a drop in the number of registrations.

“Tunisia’s original name was Ifriquia. We gave the name to Africa, we must stand in solidarity with the African continent,” he said.

Some measures in place

He explained that, when the waves of violence began, UIK supported their students who chose to hide in their lodgings with food, and those who chose to return to their home countries with online teaching.

Cherif said he was troubled to hear claims that students had been expelled, although he had not been aware of the incidents. He said that his university and other Tunisian higher education institutions offered affordable high quality higher education to students from countries such as Mali, Cameroon, and Niger.

He said that UIK had put in place measures to assist foreign students, including meeting them at the airport and ensuring their papers were in order and they were transported to safe accommodation. Cherif said: “You have to make sure that your students are safe and well looked after.”