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Migrants shout in front of the UNHCR headquarters in Tunisia after police tore a camp apart on April 11. Migrants have been the target of attacks and arrests since February.FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Police firing tear gas have forcibly cleared camps of African refugees and migrants outside United Nations offices in Tunisia, arresting dozens of people in the latest crackdown in a campaign that has sparked alarm across Africa.

Authorities removed the tents, blankets, sleeping bags and cooking equipment that the migrants had been using for the past six weeks while they sheltered outside UN offices after an eruption of anti-foreigner violence in Tunisia, according to photos and videos on social media.

One video showed a migrant in a bloodied and torn shirt after the police assault. “This country is not safe for us,” an African said in the video. “Help us, God. We need evacuation.”

Some migrants reportedly responded to the tear gas by throwing stones at parked cars and smashing their windows.

Several African governments – including those of Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea – have already organized evacuation flights in recent weeks to help hundreds of migrants return to their home countries.

The migrants, including many who have legal status as refugees, have become the target of arrests and attacks since February. The campaign began after a speech by Tunisian President Kais Saied alleging that “hordes” of foreigners were causing criminal violence and jeopardizing the country’s traditionally Arab character.

Tunisia was the only enduring democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring protest movements of 2011, but Mr. Saied has pushed the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction since his election victory in 2019. He has suspended the Tunisian parliament and his security forces have arrested journalists, trade unionists, judges and opposition activists. His government has used military trials against dissidents and has moved to dissolve the country’s elected municipal councils.

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Because of its location across the Mediterranean Sea from southern Europe, Tunisia has become a key transit hub, attracting thousands of migrants who hope to reach Europe. But the xenophobic rhetoric from Mr. Saied and other politicians has endangered the migrants. Hundreds have been arrested, physically beaten, sacked from their jobs or evicted from their homes.

The African Union, in a statement in late February, denounced Mr. Saied’s words and urged him to refrain from “racialized hate speech.”

Since then, the concern has grown. Last week, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination said it was alarmed by the surge of arbitrary arrests and violence against migrants and refugees in Tunisia after Mr. Saied’s speech.

“The committee is deeply concerned about reports of an increase of racial or xenophobic hate speech in Tunisia against migrants from African countries … including racist hate speech by private personalities and political party members, especially after the remarks made by the head of state,” it said in a statement.

“It is also gravely concerned that this wave of hate speech and stigmatization has led to acts of violence against these migrants, including physical attacks and evictions from their homes and jobs.”

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The Soufan Center, a U.S.-based independent research and analysis organization, warned that rising unemployment and inflation rates in Tunisia are “providing fertile ground for the spread of far-right narratives and the scapegoating of sub-Saharan African migrants.”

It said the anti-migrant comments by Mr. Saied were “incendiary” and an echo of the white supremacist “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which claims that global elites are “replacing” whites with non-white immigrants. “Such rhetoric has underpinned far-right violent groups and attacks” in both North America and Europe, the research group said in a report last week.

Many people with legal status in the country – including Tunisian citizens and students in Tunisian universities – have been “swept up by rising tensions and xenophobic abuse,” the Soufan Center said.

At the same time, it said, tensions are being stoked by a rise in migration through Tunisia to Europe. At least 15,340 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy from Tunisia this year, compared to about 4,000 in the same period last year. A further 14,000 migrants were intercepted or rescued at sea by the Tunisian Coast Guard, a nearly fivefold increase over the same period last year. European officials have encouraged Tunisia to bolster the enforcement of migration restrictions on the Mediterranean.

On Tuesday, Italy’s right-wing government declared a six-month state of emergency to deal with the rising number of arriving migrants. It said the declaration would allow more funding for reception centres for migrants and repatriation flights to send them back to their countries of origin.

In total, more than 31,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from all sources this year, compared to 7,900 in the same period last year, the government says.

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