African countries have launched repatriation programs after Tunisian President Kais Saied cracked down on undocumented sub-Saharan nationals whom he accused of crimes and conspiracies to change the country’s demographics.
Ivory Coast was preparing to fly nearly 300 citizens from Tunisia on Saturday, the ambassador to Tunis told AFP, as dozens of nationals gathered outside the embassy in Tunis.
Mali’s embassy said it expected to fly about 150 people home on the same day. Guinea’s military government was the first to return about 50 nationals on Wednesday evening.
Alseny Barry, a Guinean citizen repatriated from Tunisia, told Al Jazeera that conditions were “very difficult”.
“We live in hell,” he said. “If we go out, they catch us and put us in jail. They have set up a special prison for sub-Saharan Africans, if they catch you they will send you there.”
Tunisian President Saied last month ordered security forces to take “urgent action” against “hordes” of undocumented African immigrants, accusing them without evidence of causing a crime wave and plotting demographic change.
Many of Tunisia’s estimated 21,000 sub-Saharan Africans – most of whom are undocumented – lost their jobs and housing overnight.
racialized hate speech’
The African Union (AU) criticized Tunisia, urging the country to avoid “racial hate speech”. Saied has denied that his views were racist.
Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa advocate at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said Saied’s speech had a “very nefarious impact”.
“We have recorded aggravated peaks of violence against sub-Saharan Africans,” he told Al Jazeera. “The authorities are indiscriminately arresting sub-Saharan Africans without even checking their legal status, so the theory that they are only after undocumented migrants is not true.”
At least 40 students have been detained so far, according to HRW.
“There are many cases of disappearances all over the country, and this is very worrying, we don’t know where they are,” Benchemsi said.
He added that the police action came amid reports of increased violent attacks by civilians, who taunt their victims with racial slurs.
Africa Students Assistance, an organization that provides services to sub-Saharan African students in Tunisia and Morocco, said in a statement on social media that Saied’s speech was intended only to denounce clandestine migration.
“So there are no difficulties for students with a regular status,” it sounds.
‘A wave of hatred for no reason’
Ibrahima Barry, who traveled to Tunisia in 2019 to study, said neighbors broke into his home in the town of Gabes and ordered him not to move.
He said his landlord bailed him out, forced the invaders to leave and then drove him the 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the Guinean consulate in Tunis.
“In my neighborhood, black people were tracked down, chased, raped and their homes looted by Tunisians,” he said, adding that they were sometimes assisted by police.
Ibrahima Barry, 26, described the recent events as “a wave of hatred for no reason”.
“In Tunisia, if I tell you they wanted to be, that’s not too strong a word,” he told AFP.
Hundreds of Tunisians have taken to the streets to denounce racism against refugees and show solidarity with undocumented immigrants.
Tunisian and foreign volunteers brought food, water and blankets, along with some tents, to help the displaced.
“We prefer to keep it quiet,” Seif Ghrairi, an activist from the country’s anti-fascist front – hastily formed in the days after Saied’s speech – told AFP.
“Even associations that collect donations (for migrants) are under threat.”