West African governments, responding to a wave of racial violence against migrants in Tunisia, have evacuated hundreds of their citizens from the North African country and are planning to organize more flights this week.
Sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia have become the target of a growing number of attacks and arrests over the past two weeks, fuelled by xenophobic rhetoric from President Kais Saied, who claimed that “hordes” of migrants are causing criminality and threatening the demographic character of the Arab-majority country.
Mr. Saied, elected in 2019, suspended the country’s parliament in 2021 and has become increasingly authoritarian since then as he consolidates power by cracking down on opposition politicians, judges, journalists and trade unionists. Critics have called it a creeping dictatorship. The anti-immigrant campaign is his latest move to bolster his rule in Tunisia – a country that had previously been notable as the only lasting democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring street uprisings of 2011.
Many African asylum seekers have travelled to Tunisia because the country is a transit hub for those seeking to reach Europe. It is located on the northern tip of the African continent, across the Mediterranean Sea from southern Europe.
Analysts have pointed out that Mr. Saied’s allegations against migrants are similar to the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory of far-right political leaders and white nationalists in Europe and the United States, who have claimed that elites are using immigration to “replace” the white population of their countries. His comments have already been praised by a French far-right leader, Éric Zemmour.
In the aftermath of Mr. Saied’s anti-immigrant speech, hundreds of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have been physically attacked, beaten, arrested, dismissed from their jobs or evicted from their homes in Tunisia. In a statement, the African Union condemned his words, calling them “shocking” and urging him to refrain from “racialized hate speech” against his fellow Africans.
After the attacks and evictions, many fearful migrants in Tunisia have been camping in tents outside embassies or United Nations offices, seeking protection.
Ivory Coast, Guinea and Mali have organized evacuation flights for hundreds of their citizens in the past few days. “Further repatriation flights are planned in the coming days,” Ivory Coast Prime Minister Patrick Achi said in a tweet on Sunday.
Mr. Achi and several other top officials went to Abidjan’s international airport on Saturday night to welcome 150 citizens on an evacuation flight from Tunisia. The returnees were taken to a temporary reception centre in Abidjan, where they are receiving medical checks and counselling for three days.
Ivory Coast is the largest source of sub-Saharan African migration to Tunisia. Of its estimated 7,000 citizens in Tunisia, about 1,300 have asked to return home. The government said it has allocated the equivalent of $2.2-million to cover the cost of the repatriation efforts.
“The urgency is to protect the lives of our compatriots,” government spokesman Amadou Coulibaly told a briefing on Friday.
Ivory Coast’s Foreign Affairs Minister Kandia Camara, who visited the returnees at their temporary site on Sunday, said the government “will do everything possible” to ensure that its citizens can return home safely. “Those who are in prison are assisted by lawyers so that they can obtain their freedom,” she said.
Also on Saturday night, an evacuation flight arrived in Mali’s capital, Bamako, with 135 Malians from Tunisia. Last week, another flight brought 50 Guineans back from Tunisia.
Another country, Niger, could also be evacuating some of its citizens. In Tunisia, an association of students from Niger said on the weekend that it was accepting registrations from those who want to return home.
Meanwhile, thousands of people marched in protest against Mr. Saied’s policies in two separate demonstrations on the weekend in Tunisia’s capital, Tunis.
A protest on Saturday, organized by a major trade union, was one of the biggest so far. Thousands of protesters filled the city’s central boulevard, carrying banners with slogans such as: “End the police state.”
On Sunday, a smaller protest was held in Tunis, organized by opposition supporters in defiance of an official ban on the event. Police warned them that the protest was illegal, but hundreds of people broke through a police barrier to reach the central boulevard.