Take it forward: the arrivals in Lampedusa, the racist violances the Tunisia-EU memorandum.
Over the past few days, more than 2000 people have disembarked at the Favaloro pier in Lampedusa, mainly coming from the coast of Sfax, Tunisia. Below are some fragments of conversations with people who have just disembarked in Lampedusa and who refer directly to what is happening in Tunisia.
I have been living in Tunisia for four years, by now I knew everyone. In every place, in every society there are the good guys and there are the bad guys...in the cafes, in the neighbourhood we used to go out together not everyone is racist but by now the situation has become very dangerous. My landlord came and told me that we had to leave, we couldn't stay there anymore; i said us that we had to run away otherwise the police would come or the people themselves would attack us and burn everything.
These are the words of a young man who has just disembarked on Lampedusa, and they subtend all the violence of having to flee from a city where one has lived for so many years, tearing apart social relations and acquaintances. Those who arrive in these days on Lampedusa not only have on their bodies the fatigue and difficulty of the sea voyage in an overcrowded iron barge, but carry with them the countless abuses they have suffered and the essentially racist violence perpetuated by Tunisian civilians and authorities:
The police arrived with buses and picked people up to take them to the desert, to the border with Libya. One of our brothers was taken to Libya like this [...].
And that's what happened directly to Rosette and her child, Hamadi who was less than a year old:
They took us all the way to the border with Libya, there were so many people there: women, some pregnant, young people and men. I managed to escape and get back on the road to Sfax...on foot. No bus or other means of transport wanted to pick us up because we are black...luckily I managed to get a ride to Gabes and then walked to Sfax [...].
According to AlarmPhone, more than 1,200 people have been deported to the military and desert zone on the border between Libya and Tunisia. Last week the city of Sfax was the epicenter of yet another whirlwind of racist violence. At the beginning of June, xenophobic and populist discourses began to clog social media and public debate. The Tunisian newspaper LaPresse, on 11 June, published an open letter signed by 'a group of academics and journalists' from Sfax in which, amid conspiracy theories and racism, they pointed the finger at the presence of non-white non-Tunisian people to the point of regretting 'the beautiful colonial era':
During the colonial era, Sphaxian society was made up of Jewish and Christian communities, as well as French, Maltese, Greek, Corsican and Norwegian immigrants: a very enriched and coherent human and cultural mosaic, reflecting a high standard of living (correct style of dress, behaviour, needs, aspirations, etc.).
It is nationalist thinking that is advancing in gusts of populism, racism and incitement to hatred. The group of university students never existed and the rector of the University of Sfax categorically denied any connection with the publication. At the same time, videos of the 'nationalist movement' whose incitements to racial hatred have been circulating online since last November, resumed. In the same week, no less than two sit-ins were organized in Sfax to point the finger at the 'sub-Saharans' in the city and denounce the ethnic replacement plot.
"Les africanes", the Africans, the "sub-Saharans" is how they refer to us over there (in Tunisia). They no longer even differentiate between students and non-students, they only see 'the blacks'.
At the beginning of July, some neighbourhoods in Sfax were the site of violent brawls, attacks and house fires. The death of a young Tunisian man in a fight between tunisians and people coming from the south of the Sahara served to exacerbate the spiral of violence. Police interventions - after two days! - instead of trying to suppress tensions have rather served to increase the discrimination and endangerment of thousands of non-Tunisian and non-white citizens. As some people who had just landed in Lampedusa recounted:
We ran away from home with nothing, no more money no more phones, we have nothing. We stayed for days in olive fields but even there we had to run and be careful because we were attacked by groups of young people and police. We were without water and food for days on end.
We stayed in the city, at the 'roundabout' because it was the only place where we felt safe, there were many of us and it was easier to defend ourselves.
The 'roundabout' is Djebli Square in Sfax, where thousands of people from the southern Saharan countries, victims of racist violence, gathered and camped; there are still people there today. Online videos showed burnt houses, groups of people being knocked to the ground and threatened with knives, humiliation. In the context of uncontrollable violence, the police loaded the victims of racist attacks onto buses and then immediately deported them to the military and desert zone on the border with Libya or on the border with Algeria, in a complementary relationship and not a break with the violence perpetuated by the groups of Tunisian citizens. Without any legal formalities (no deportation decree, travel warrant or the like) groups of people including pregnant women, children, people with disabilities and/or serious illnesses, refugees recognised by the UNHCR) were thrown for days without water and food into the desert and forbidden to be assisted by individuals and associations. Solidarity workers were arrested for trying to reach the deportees* with basic necessities. Only the International Red Cross, after various pressures and only after a few days, managed to get permission to assist the deported people; direct testimonies denounce that assistance was offered in exchange for a self-declaration of voluntary return.
At a press conference held in front of the Lampedusa hotspot on 4 July, Ylva Johanson, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said that measures to support Tunisia included direct support to IOM. In her view, support for the international organization is due to the exponential increase in repatriation requests. The distortion lies in not linking the requests received by IOM with the violence that resulted from President Kais Saied's racist speech last February. The encampments and sit-ins in front of IOM and UNHCR are the result of criminalisation, xenophobia and racist hate speech in which national and international actors participate. It is in this context of abuses that fits in the memorandum between Tunisia and the EU. As Keita, a Malian boy who arrived at Favaloro, states:
'we have left many brothers in Libya and Tunisia, many of whom have been arrested and we don't even know until when [...].
The imprisonement is what happened to the group of asylum seekers in a sit-in in front of the UNHCR last April and to the undocumented people arrested without guarantees in the centre of el-Ouardeya. It is what has been happening to political activists, opponents of the President, journalists and Tunisian lawyers* for a few years now. The pivot on which everything is being orchestrated is the Tunisian securitarian apparatus; repression, fear, control and police practices without any framing or counterweight have taken centre stage in the Tunisian public arena, harking back to the social control practices of the Ben Ali era. Interested only in the political stability of Tunisia, the signatories of the latest memorandum place themselves in a complementary relationship with both the populist/authoritarian drift of Kais Saied and the structural racism on which the practices of border control are based; with respect to all this "[...] today, we take it forward", as Ursula von der Leyen tweeted to comment on the signing of the memorandum with Tunisia.