Tunisia: Black Africans go into hiding as president’s comments prompt arrests and violence

Kais Saied said immigration from other African countries was part of a campaign to change Tunisia’s demographics

Thousands of black Africans have gone into hiding in Tunisia, according to residents, one week after comments by the North African country’s president provoked a wave of arrests, evictions, raids and violence.

On February 21st, president Kais Saied told his national security council that immigration by Africans from other countries was part of a campaign to change Tunisia’s demographics.

“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” he said, calling that a “criminal arrangement”.

The comments appear to have encouraged attacks on black Africans inside the country, regardless of their legal status. Tunisia’s largest union for African students from other countries, Aesat, warned students not to leave their homes, and to carry all their documentation with them if they had to go outside.


Last Friday, Moussa Faki Mahamat, the chairman of the African Union Commission, condemned Mr Saied’s words.

He “remind[ed] all countries, particularly African Union member states, to honour their obligations under international law and relevant African Union instruments, to treat all migrants with dignity, wherever they come from, refrain from racialised hate speech that could bring people to harm, and prioritise their safety and human right.”

Speaking from capital city Tunis, Monica Marks, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern politics at New York University Abu Dhabi, told The Irish Times that it had been a “terrorising time for black immigrants”.

“A lot of them live here legally. A lot of them are students,” she said. “Some, of course, don’t have papers, but a lot of white people who live in Tunisia for years also don’t have formal papers ... White immigrants, expats who live here for years on end on just tourist visas, are not being rounded up or evicted from their homes or beaten in the streets.”

She said black Africans had been “physically attacked, stabbed, hundreds of people evicted over night ... They’re hiding inside their homes with the doors locked twice and the curtains drawn.” Black Tunisians have also been arrested, she said, despite having citizenship.

She said she had been travelling to and reporting on Tunisia since 2007 and “I never imagined that we’d see anything like this”.

On Saturday, about 1,000 people participated in a protest against the president’s remarks in Tunis.

Mr Saied was elected in 2019. Two years later he carried out what was widely labelled a coup, when he froze the parliament and dismissed the government before pushing through a constitution granting himself unchecked powers.

Ms Marks said it was important to note the connection between Mr Saied’s comments about immigration and the political situation, which has recently seen the arrests of opposition figures whom Saied has branded “terrorists” and “traitors”.

Francesca Albanese, a UN special rapporteur who also lives in Tunisia, tweeted saying she was “shocked at the mounting violence ... Discrimination has always existed. Now, encouraged by foolish political statements of the leadership, a real witch hunt against [black Africans] is ongoing.” She specified that she was tweeting in a personal capacity.

As well as being a destination country, Tunisia is one of the departure countries for people trying to reach Europe by crossing the central Mediterranean Sea – previously named as the “deadliest migration route in the world” by the UN.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa