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Ivory Coast repatriates hundreds more after Tunisia racism row

Ivorian migrants disembark a repatriation plane from Tunisia at Felix Houphouet Boigny airport in Abidjan, on March 04, 2023   -  
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SIA KAMBOU/AFP or licensors


Almost 300 Ivorians were repatriated on Thursday from Tunisia, where migrants say they no longer feel safe after President Kais Saied had said they represented a demographic threat.

The ambassador of Ivory Coast in Tunis, Ibrahim Sy Savane, said 287 people including 21 toddlers were flown back to Abidjan on a jumbo jet chartered from Ethiopian Airlines.

With the latest departures, a total of 1,053 Ivorians have been repatriated from Tunisia since chartered flights began in early March, Savane told AFP.

Saied on February 21 accused immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa of causing a wave of "violence and crime", saying they aimed to "change the demographic composition" of Tunisia and separate it from the Islamic and Arab worlds.

Tunisia, a North African country of 12 million people, hosts an estimated 21,000 migrants from other parts of Africa, representing 0.2 percent of the population.

In the days after Saied's speech, migrants had reported an upsurge in racist attacks and many were evicted into the streets by landlords fearing large fines or prison for housing them.

Those who worked informally in construction and other sectors also lost their jobs, and thousands rushed to their embassies to be repatriated.

Just under 3,000 Ivorians have registered with the embassy for repatriation, Savane said.

Ivorians are able to enter Tunisia without a visa, and roughly 7,000 live there, the country's largest sub-Saharan African community.

While some migrants come to study, many use Tunisia as a springboard for attempts to reach Europe by sea. European governments have pressured Tunis to rein in the flow.

Parts of Tunisia's coastline are within 150 kilometres (90 miles) of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

At least three deadly shipwrecks of boats carrying migrants, including many Ivorians, have been recorded off Tunisia since early March.

The spokesman for the Tunisian National Guard said Thursday that the coastguard had intercepted 2,034 migrants since Wednesday, among them nine Tunisians, and recovered the bodies of seven others.

A rights group said five migrants drowned and another 28 were missing Wednesday after their boat capsized off Tunisia.

Describing "a race against time", the Ivorian ambassador said the country was planning to charter further repatriation flights.

He said he wanted "to prevent more desperate people from throwing themselves into the Mediterranean with little chance of survival".

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