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Safe European Homes: Racist Violence Grips Tunisian City as Europe Pushes Migration Concerns Overseas

Tunisians, one of the principal contributors to irregular migration, have turned upon black arrivals in the port city of Sfax

Clothing of Sudanese migrants in Sfax. Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall

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We don’t know where Mohammed Ali Abdullah is now. The young Sudanese man was last spotted a few days ago, sheltering from the sun in a dog-eared park to the rear of the medina in Sfax, central Tunisia. He could be anywhere now. 

Mohammed said he’d been living in Tunisia for three months when a mob of local men came to his house and forced him and others from their home. For many black migrants in Sfax, these kinds of racially fuelled attacks are regarded with near nonchalance. They’ve become routine. There is no longer any expectation of justice. 

However, the death of a local man on Monday, said to have been involved in the racist pogroms, in a killing for which three men from Cameroon were later charged, lit the touchpaper that led to the explosion in racist violence within the city that one onlooker described as “like civil war.”

Over the following hours and days, hundreds of undocumented black migrants fled the city, crowding into the shared taxi, or louage, stations, or crowding into the train station in a bid to escape night and the mob. 

Eventually, the security forces intervened, rounding up and expelling at least 1,200 to the country’s borders with Algeria and Libya. MP,  Moez Barkallah from the country’s Potemkin Parliament said he ‘hoped’ that three to four thousand would be deported by the end of the week.  

Mohammed Ali Abdullah could be anywhere. 

The Medina in Sfax. Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall

“It took me two weeks to reach Tunisia after the war broke out,” he told a translator, travelling overland through Libya, where rival governments and their assorted militias vie for power, influence and petrodollars. He encountered “a few problems” there, he said. Now he lives in the park, he said, gesturing to the grassless spaces of light brown dust and dried timber, where women and children sheltered from the heat, their clothes hanging off the railings to air. 

Another man lies at Mohammed’s feet, his arm encased in bandages and plaster. He was attacked a few weeks ago, Mohammed explained. He had been speaking on his phone when some local men approached him and sliced his arm with a machete. The wound’s aching now, but no hospital will see him. 

Racism didn’t just come to Sfax. It’s long festered within the country’s dark recesses, out of sight of polite society. However, as economic uncertainty has grown, shortages in staple foods, and a genuine terror of what the future may offer has gripped the country, so too has the fear and suspicion of the dark skinned outsider, who come from distant and wartorn countries to take their place among the thousands of Tunisians, all seeking to either survive or forge a fresh start in Europe. 

If racial tensions were a concern, they surged in February. Speaking to his security council, the country’s outsider President, Kais Saied, promoted from academia by the electorate to wage war upon the former political establishment, took the opportunity to repeat the racist conspiracy theories of the west. According to Saied, the desperate black migrants making their way to Tunisia, who were bringing “all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices” were symptoms of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” of Tunisia. 

Though since dismissed as a ‘misunderstanding‘ by loyal members of his cabinet, there was little ambiguity over the intense violence his words unleashed across the country, the intervention of several African governments to airlift their citizens out of Tunisia or the international rebukes afforded Saied

All the while, the boats leave and desperate people drown, almost 2,000 across the Mediterranean alone this year

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If Tunisia’s own contribution to irregular migration – it is now the leading nationality among irregular landings in Italy – has slipped from the country’s national consciousness, it’s an issue that  remains very much alive in Brussels.  In early June, the European Commission’s President, Ursula Von Der Leyen, along with the far right leader of Italy, Georgia Meloni and the Netherland’s former prime minister, Mark Rutte visited Tunis and announced an aid package of around 1 Billion Euros, to shore up Tunisia’s tanking economy and support the policing of its shores. 

Details were sketchy and remain so. No one knows if Europe’s aid is conditional upon Tunisia reforming its ailing economy ahead of a further bailout from the International Monetary Fund. Likewise, the EU remains tightlipped on the measures Tunisia may have to undertake in return for the aid package that EU press officers assured journalists would be signed off weeks ago. 

In the meantime, migrants of all stripes continue to travel to Sfax and continue to try to reach Europe. . 

Mohammed had already tried once, paying his 3,000 Tunisian Dinars, (around 750GBP) to take his place with thirty-five others on a steel boat, welded together in a few hours, specifically for the use of the black migrants. 

Tunisians, they say, do not travel this way. 

“It was metal, with a flat bottom and no keel,” he told a translator, describing how one of their number was picked out and given a GPS and a crash course in marine navigation. Few there thought too harshly of the smugglers, as often as not, impoverished fishers and their families, squeezed out of the economy by larger boats with richer owners. 

Mohamed didn’t get far before his boat was intercepted by the coast guard and returned to shores miles away from their departure point, left to make their way on foot through the dusty olive fields to Sfax. 

Now he could be anywhere. 

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Human Rights Watch (HRW) made contact with one group of expelled black migrants. According to them, anywhere between five and seven hundred were rounded up, their phones smashed, before being herded onto buses and driven 180 south to the militarised zone between Tunisia and Libya. There, they were left to languish without shelter and beyond the reach of aid groups. 

It will be 43 degrees Celcius there this weekend. 

One of the migrants, whose phone had escaped the security services, told HRW of conditions there. He described how the group had found themselves between Tunisian security forces and Libyan militia, with each side pushing the unprotected migrants to the other. 

“We are at the Tunisia-Libya border, at the seaside,” one Ivorian asylum seeker told HRW on July 4. “We were beaten [by Tunisian security forces].…We have many injured people here.…We have children who haven’t eaten for days … forced to drink sea water. We have a [Guinean] pregnant woman who went into labor … she died this morning … the baby died too.”

Meanwhile, Tunisian and European negotiators continue to thrash out a deal in Brussels, one that stands to push Europe’s own concerns about irregular migration back beyond the EU’s shores and into the dubious care of North Africa’s rulers, such as Kais Saied.

Asked about the treatment meted out to black migrants in Tunisia on Monday, a spokesperson for the European Commission said they were monitoring the situation closely

We still don’t know where Mohammed Ali Abdullah is. 

Mohammed from Sierra Leone. Photo: Simon Speakman Cordall

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