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Tunisia’s president is targeting migrants to divert attention from serious domestic problems – a classic tactic

People wearing white jackets and holding a large flag.
Thousands in Tunis protest soaring prices, corruption and denounced recent comments by the Tunisian president against sub-Saharan migrants. EPA/Mohamed Messara

Tunisia’s president Kais Saied recently called for urgent measures against illegal immigration of sub-Saharan African nationals. He said they were a source of “violence, crime and unacceptable acts”. His comments were condemned by the international community and the World Bank paused talks over its future engagement with Tunisia. They also led to widespread protests in Tunisia while hundreds of migrants fled the country.

Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, asked Jean-Pierre Cassarino, an expert on international migration in the Maghreb and Africa region, to shed light on migration to Tunisia and what might be behind the president’s comments.

What is the history of sub-Saharan migration to Tunisia. How many migrants are there?

Sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia come primarily from western Africa. Immigrants in Tunisia account for 0.5% of the national population. Official, documented migrants from sub-Saharan Africa number around 21,000 persons out of a total immigrant population of around 58,000 according to a recent study.

These basic figures are important. They show that immigrants make up a very small number of foreigners compared with the national population.

There are different types of sub-Saharan migrants. Many students from west Africa come to Tunisia because they obtained a scholarship or wish to continue their training in Tunisian universities. There are several bilateral university agreements between Tunisia and various west African countries.

Other migrants come to Tunisia for labour, or because they are en route to Europe. However, for these, there are no precise statistical data as they are irregular. To give an idea of a figure though, in 2021, at least 23,328 irregular migrants were intercepted by Tunisian authorities trying to get to Europe.

Note that a migrant from sub–Saharan Africa can come with a regular status and may become irregular. Irregularity is far from being a choice in Tunisia. There is a lot of administrative paperwork and bureaucracy that lengthen the procedure for getting a regular status in Tunisia. Procedures are so cumbersome that migrants - such as students - find themselves in a legal limbo when they need to extend their stay.

What are the country’s current policies towards migrants like?

Let me be clear and concise: it is selectively discriminatory. Tunisia is quite open with European immigrants and very restrictive with non-EU citizens.

The bottom line is that Tunisia’s approach to migration and migrants’ rights oscillates between the need to comply with international standards and the necessity to maximise the benefits of its citizens living abroad – such as remittances or the transfer of skills acquired abroad. This means it needs to try and keep its migration policies quite open. At the same time it wants to act as a credible player in the fight against irregular migration in its interactions with the EU and its member states. This means that Tunisia needs to show it can cooperate with the EU and its member states as well as control its own borders.

Are there social and political factors behind the president’s comments?

A law against racism was adopted in Tunisia in 2018. It was an important step in defending the rights of Tunisians who identify as black, as well as the country’s migrants.

It is quite staggering to hear a political leader using such statements publicly.

When it comes to social tensions migration has been used in many countries as a means to discipline public opinion while scapegoating foreigners. One example of this is in South Africa where migrants were scapegoated as inequality and unemployment surged. Another is in the US where business cycle downturns led to blaming Latino migrants.

The common denominators include rising domestic unemployment (especially youth unemployment), public deficits, the crisis of the welfare state and of the economy, and, last but not least, social tensions. This is true in Tunisia too.

The link between the conditions of labour migrants and native workers’ rights is well documented by scholars across disciplines.

Tunisia is behaving like many other countries confronted by social, political and economic challenges. Public opinion needs radical positions regardless of their responsiveness to the malaise of a society. Our recent history abounds with examples, even the worst we could ever imagine. It is much easier to refuse to come to terms with what is really happening. This is a kind of escape from reality. Making the public believe that the containment of foreigners’ rights will somehow protect citizens from the containment of their own social and economic rights is a classic political strategy used by many leaders. Of course, there are variations across countries.

Tunisia’s economy is in crisis: state finances are on the brink of bankruptcy and there are shortages of key goods. President Saied has also been seizing more power and recently had a massive crackdown on critics that accuse him of trying to install a new dictatorship in the country.


Read more: 5 xenophobic myths about immigrants in South Africa debunked by researchers


Clearly, the anti-immigrant rhetoric in Tunisia is profoundly problematic but it is not exceptional. It is not specific to Tunisia. That being said, this same rhetoric is paradoxical because Tunisia is predominantly an emigration country with a large diaspora living in various countries. Tunisians are confronted with similar discriminatory and nationalist discourses abroad. I wonder how a country can credibly protect its own citizens living abroad against discrimination and racism when similar facts are glaringly happening at home.

Meanwhile, I am afraid that more restrictive provisions will be adopted in the near future. When I refer to escape from reality I mean that it is easier for a government (and a part of its constituencies) to place blame elsewhere than to come to terms with what is really happening.

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