Tunisia, may 2024. Deportation of black people, arrestations of lawyers, activists and journos.


During the month of may 2024, in Tunisia forced deportations at the borders with Algeria and Lybia still continued; arrestations of activistes, lawyers and journalists came after the Security Council of May the 6th. Racism keep on being present on member of Parliamet's propositions and public intervantions. 

The deportations and expulsions at the beginning of May

In the early days of May, on the train-rails connecting Jandouba - on the border with Algeria - to Tunis, several people walked for days without possessions, returning to the Tunisian capital from where they had been violently disembarked, loaded onto buses and deported to the borders with Libya and Algeria.(Imed Soltani video of people fleeing the bus). Among them was a group of 32 Sudanese people who had been camped for months in front of the IOM offices in Lac de Tunis and among whom there were elderly people, women, children, people with wounds and bruises, and a pregnant woman with blood loss. Many of them held refugee cards recognised by the UNHCR.

Before dawn on Friday 3rd May, Tunisian security forces cleared hundreds of migrants and refugees who had camped in a public garden near the IOM and UNHCR offices in Tunis. During the eviction, security forces used tear gas and tasers against these people, including children.

On 4th May, 15 migrants who had been living since 2017 in a youth compound in Marsa, on the northern outskirts of Tunis, were expelled from their home. The group, who fled Libya in 2011, had previously been expelled from a UN Choucha refugee camp in Ben Gardene, southern Tunisia, after its closure in 2013. The 15 men are currently detained for illegal stay in the country. They appeared before the prosecutor without a translator or lawyer.

On the walls of Tunis. Courtesy of Ernest Riva. Credit: www.ernest-riva.com .

 The Security Council on the 6th of May

Tunisia will not be a country of reception or transit for irregular migrants [...].

In addition to reiterating the political line started in February 2023, Kais Saied, in a National Security Council convoked the 6th May 2024, targeted associations whose projects are developed in the so-called migration sphere. The pretext is the fundings received by associations and NGOs from foreign financiers, a source of financial resources for most of the associations that make up the fabric of Tunisian civil society post-2011. In inquisitorial tones, he referred to those working in this field as 'mercenaries' and 'traitors' who 'undermine the state in the name of freedom of expression', reiterating the idea of a conspiracy to bring sub-Saharan Africans to Tunisia*. According to him, these are "individuals who received money in 2018 to settle irregular migrants in Tunisia", "rabid trumpeters motivated by foreign salaries" because they receive funding from abroad and "insult" the state.

(link nawaat)

All these events and the ensuing violence of May followed a meeting in Rome on 2 May between the interior ministers of Italy, Tunisia, Libya and Algeria. As it has been the practice for some years now, no statements were made and no press conference was organised.

The role of the Red Crescent, attacks on the UNHCR and arrests among civil society.

Since 3rd May, the Tunisian authorities have arrested, summoned and investigated managers, former employees or members of at least 12 organisations on unclear charges, including 'financial crimes', for providing aid to migrants.

Among the targets of government repression is the Tunisian Council for Refugees (CTR), a non-governmental organisation that recently published a call for proposals from hotels for a reception programme for asylum seekers and refugees. The Tunisian authorities arrested the president and vice-president of the CTR and the public prosecutor ordered their provisional detention pending an investigation on charges of 'conspiracy to help people enter Tunisian territories without travel documents.

* In the rest of the article, the term sub-Saharan will not be used to define the category of people who have been suffering racist attacks from institutions and inhabitants in Tunisia since February 2023.    Rather, the term black people will be used to the extent that exclusion occurs not by geography of origin but by race. What has strengthened in recent years in Tunisia is structural racism, not stigmatization linked to origins.

On 8th May, Tunisian police arrested Saadia Mosbah, a well-known activist and president of Mnemty, a Tunisian anti-racist organisation providing support to refugees and migrants. Saadia is still under arrest in Mornagueya prison (the extension of which was financed by European funds). The same happened with the Norwegian Refugee Council and president of Terre d'Asile Tunisie, Cherifa Rihai, who is still under arrest.

Between 8th and 10th May, the authorities arrested two people and sentenced another to eight months in prison for hosting undocumented migrants.

There is no question of associations replacing the state.

In the same speech on 6th May, the President emphasised that the state must and can be the sole interlocutor on migrant and refugee issues. He also emphasised the centrality and effectiveness of the role of the Tunisian Red Crescent, which, like the Red Cross, is an organisation inextricably linked to government policy by openly delegitimising the work of the UNHCR.

 Parliament on the Law n.68

If these are the tones of the political address thundering from Carthage (seat of the President of the Republic), the palace of Bardo (seat of Parliament) is its sounding board, indulging both its criminalising and security aspect with respect to everything that concerns the migratory sphere and the resulting structural racism.

Emblematic in this sense is the proposal to revise Law No. 7 of 1968 presented by 13 deputies on May 6th and which is the cornerstone regulating the legal status of persons without Tunisian citizenship with or without documents. Already unbalanced towards the punitive detention aspect of undocumented foreigners, according to a critical reading made by legal-agenda, the 1968 law, formulated during a dictatorial period, possesses a distinctly repressive, punitive and security-focused nature In the case of illegal entry into the country, in fact, the bill would change from a prison sentence ranging from one month to one year at present, and to one to three years imprisonment, with a fine of between 300 and 5,000 dinars.In addition

Regarding the offence of 'directly or indirectly aiding a foreigner' or attempting to facilitate his or her illegal entry into, exit from or stay in Tunisia, the MPs propose increasing the penalty from one to three years' imprisonment (instead of one month to one year) with a fine of between 1,000 and 5,000 dinars.

According to Mehdy el-esh writing on the web-site Legal Agenda, the parliamentarians did not realise the seriousness of the widespread criminalisation, which does not target the exploitative networks of migrants, but only solidarity with them. Any assistance to an irregular migrant, such as food, water, transport, or shelter, even without compensation, is criminalised and imprisoned by the state.

Since the speech of February 2023, in which President Kais Saied adopted the concepts of the Great Replacement theory, so dear to the European radical right (Zemmour complimented the February 2023 speech), racist thinking has been cleared especially on socials, radio and TV channels. Speeches by MPs in parliament and on social media contribute to fuelling racism in Tunisia.

At the beginning of May, MP Yassine Mami published a photo of the National Council for Refugees' notice (in partnership with UNHCR and mentioned above) to provide accommodation for asylum seekers, denouncing it as a 'settlement scheme' and an 'imminent threat to national security and the structure of society', surprising himself by allocating hotels to people living 'in the jungles of Africa'.

MP Fatima Messadi, a Member of Parliament elected in the Sfax constituency who has always been known for her racist messages, has several times spoken of the 'African occupation' of the city of Sfax, promising a legislative initiative to criminalise 'the renting out of shops to unlicensed foreigners', and launching a petition calling on the president to 'hold all those involved in the settlement and colonisation plan responsible'.

Also dated to May is a proposal by MPs Reem Sghir and Asma Darwish to the Prime Minister proposing the employment of 'Africans' in the workforce in 'African service companies' supervised by Sfax entrepreneurs for a period of up to 20 years and then deported to their countries of origin.

Two weeks after the introduction of the bill and after a series of arrests among journalists and lawyers, the Minister of the Interior, in a parliamentary question, debunked the myth of resettlement plots by declaring the presence of only 23,000 irregular black migrants on Tunisian territory and where more than 1,100 irregular migrants are currently in detention. Statements that went against both the tones publicly used so far by the President and the need to strengthen the punitive and detention approach.

On 25th May, two days after the parliamentary session, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Social Affairs were replaced. A liquidation of particular political importance since both Kamel Feki (former Min. of the Interior) and Malek Zahi (former Min. of Social Affairs), both from the Tunisian left (Watad) have always been supporters of the 'revolutionary' political project pursued by the current President.

Kais Saied is neither a slave of Rome nor a mere executor of European policies. His political interests and those of the Van der Layen-led European Commission are linked in a relationship of reciprocity rather than asymmetrical obligation (1) . From the beginning of his career until today he has put his hands in various sectors of the country with the intention of repressing any potential opposition.

Last May it was the turn of what until now had not been touched: the network of civil society made up of associations and NGOs and the freedom of the press, an unquestionable conquest posthumous to the fall of Ben Ali.

1. This is not intended to neglect or diminish the asymmetries, especially in economic terms, which refer to neo-colonial power relations and of which EU and Tunisia relations are an expression.

Sit-in on 9 May organised by some associations in front of the European Commission headquarters in Tunis.

Decree 54 and the law n.88 on the freedom of association.

On 11 May, a dozen hooded policemen in civilian clothes forced their way into the Dar el-Mouhami (2) (the Lawyers' House) to arrest Sonia Dahmani.

A lawyer and frequent TV talk show personality, Sonia Dahmani received an arrest warrant following statements and comments made on television. Sarcastically responding to presidential statements that referred to an ethnic substitution in Tunisia, the lawyer wondered aloud who really wanted to stabilise in a welfare-poor country like Tunisia. She also reiterated how the situation of the encampments in the olive groves in el-Amra is the result of forced deportations from Sfax and interceptions at sea by the national guard.

On Monday 13th May, another lawyer, Mehdi Zagrouba, was arrested. According to several sources, he was taken to hospital on Wednesday evening after being beaten in detention and losing consciousness. Bassem Trifi, president of the Ligue de défense des droits de l'homme (League for the Defence of Human Rights), said that 'together with the president of the Bar Association and fellow lawyers, we saw clear signs of violence and torture on his body'.

The arrests were ordered under Decree Law 54. Other well-known journalists were arrested for the same reason. Signed by President Kais Saied in September 2022, it is a decree-law that aims to combat 'false information' on the Internet. In practice - as per the textbook - the vagueness of the terms of the decree allows it to be applied arbitrarily and abusively to suppress all criticism and opposition.

[2] Place of association of lawyers. They had never received a police action of this type until two days before Ben Ali's departure.

From 25th July 2021 to the present day, the President's actions of control and devious manipulation of Tunisia's political gears has resulted in Parliament and Jurisprudence as places where there is no dissonance with his political line. Rather than providing, in extremis, a counterweight to abuses of power, they are institutional places that legitimise and confirm the President's unique and absolute power.

Civil society remains a place of criticism and opposition. If Decree 54 is already applied to censor journalists and reporters, the amendment of Article 88 is the repressive axe that can fall on the Tunisian associative fabric that has developed in the post-2011 period. Enacted in 2011, Decree-Law 88 guarantees freedom of associationism in Tunisia and is regarded as an achievement of the 2011 revolution. Since the coup d'état of 2021, the President has announced his intention to amend the law to reduce the spheres of interre of associations and, above all, to reduce the possibility of receiving foreign funding, an aspect that will strongly impact the activities of several associations and NGOs active in Tunisia.

Fear and paralysis.

"We did not interfere in their affairs when they arrested demonstrators denouncing the genocidal war against the Palestinian people".

Thundered the president in response to criticism by foreign officials of the arrests that took place in May. Foreign interference and conspiracy against the state are concepts mobilised by President Kais Saied to justify arrests and repression at various levels of the Tunisian state and territory.

The air in Tunisia has long been thought of in many quarters. An uneasy feeling, a symptom of insecurity and fear, accompanies the activities of many; the feeling that pervades many spaces is that of arbitrary repression, without guarantees, which can strike anyone at any time and from which no one can be safe.

Strengthening Kais Saied at this moment means strengthening the securitarian, repressive and imprisonment apparatuses that revolve around his position of power. In the post-Covid years in Tunisia, we are confronted with the return of policing and control practices that exhume the spirit of the Ben Ali regime.

Is Tunisia a republic or a kingdom, or a zoo, or rather a prison?

Zouhair Yahyaoui, who died in prison in 2011 and is known as the first internet martyr, wrote on his blog.

Today in Tunisia we are confronted with the fragility and temporariness of rights and freedoms following the 2011 mobilisations and the fall of Ben Ali regime. The authoritarian tailspin is real everywhere in the Mediterranean space; the champions of liberticidal ideas - populists and conservatives linked to authoritarian managements of power - weave alliances at the regional level through apparently contradictory rhetoric. They all participate in the strengthening of structural racism and the multiple segregations that follow.

We express solidarity with all activists in Tunisia, with civil society actors, with all oppressed and segregated people exposed to various forms of racist violence, with all people forcibly deported from EU countries, and with families and neighbourhoods who demand truth and denounce the disappearance of their loved ones at sea.