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How did Tunisia become a hostile land for sub-saharan African migrants? [Interview]

Migration researcher Ahlam Chemlali speaking with Africanews journalist Lauriane Vofo Kan on Jul. 26, 2023.   -  
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On this special interview segment on Africanews, Ahlam Chemlali, a migration researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS) is our guest.

Migration tensions are rising on Mediterranean shores as European countries try to limit the arrival of migrants from African shores.

Tunisia has become the main steppingstone to Italy, Europe's gateway. With that have come deals and accusations of abuse at the hands of Tunisian security forces.

EU deals and financial packages to manage migration with partners such as Libya or Tunisia have seemingly done little to change underlying dynamics. Which effects did they actually produce?

Ahlam Chemlali: Millions of euros have flown in from European institutions and member states to train, equip and advise Tunisian security forces and basically militarize Tunisian borders. This has included funding for radar systems, for Coast Guard boats, electronic surveillance  equipment, sensors, and to train Tunisian security. But what we have seen is it hasn't stopped migration. Instead, it has only bolstered the security apparatus and also accelerated the concerns about Tunisia returning into a police state.

When referring to migrants in Tunisia, who are we talking about?

Ahlam Chemlali: Well, exact figures are difficult to find in Tunisia, but the number of African nationals, excluding the Maghreb countries, has risen sharply since 2014. From 7,000 to now more than 20,000. But many organizations that work with migration put these numbers between 20,000 and 50,000 thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. And here the biggest group is Ivorian.

They represent one third of the total, followed by Guinea and Mali. And many of these countries actually have free visa agreements with Tunisia, which means essentially that the vast majority of migrants residing in Tunisia arrived in a legal manner through these visa agreements. And also, there are thousands of students enrolled at Tunisian universities as well. And lastly, you, of course, also have refugees and asylum seekers. Currently, the UNHCR, which manages this, have put the numbers as around 9,000 registered refugees and asylum seekers. And of course there are many that are not registered. So the numbers could be much higher.

What about those who end up stuck after being blocked from crossing the Mediterranean?

Ahlam Chemlali: Well, this is the problem and crux of the matter as we speak. Thousands, tens of thousands of migrants have been intercepted over the years by the EU-funded, EU-backed Tunisian coast guards. Essentially, what happens is that, because of and in the absence of a Tunisian migration policy and framework, many migrants are just left to themselves in this protection limbo, which essentially means that they don't have any access to protection or obtain legal status, and therefore they're pretty much left to themselves to fend for themselves in marginalization and very precarious situation. Which is why many, as we see now, numbers, are increasing. They try to cross again because there's nothing left in Tunisia for them to secure a livelihood or protect themselves.

What are the consequences of an absence of legal migration and asylum framework?

Ahlam Chemlali: The migrants not able to access the formal labor market. They are unable to regularize their status and forced to live in this kind of legal limbo where they're stranded on the fringes of society. And this is really the problem right now. 

What we also have seen with the [situation] in Sfax is that this creates tensions between local populations and the migrants that are basically left to themselves. So therefore, even though many, as I mentioned, arrive in a legal manner and with the intention of staying in Tunisia as their end destination, these structures and inequality and non-migration policy in a sense, pushes people to continue their journeys, for instance, to cross the Mediterranean, which for many in the beginning was not the initial plan. But again, because of the lack of of protection mechanisms in the country and opportunities, people feel pushed to continue and leave Tunisia.

Tunisia is a signatory to a range of charters such as the African Chater on Human and Peoples’ Rights.  The text among other things says any individual shall have 'the right to freedom of movement and to reside in a country as long as he abides by the law'. Shouldn’t Tunisia then have a legal migration framework?

Ahlam Chemlali: Well, yes, it should definitely do that ! As part of Tunisia's recent transition from dictatorial to democratic rule, the country is a signatory to a range of human rights instruments and frameworks. And this also includes having ratified the Geneva Convention and also on the status of refugees. 

But because they don't have a national framework on migration or asylum, the implementation remains incomplete. And so there is this loophole in the law that really with with no prospect of implementing migration or having possibilities for regular regularization, for the many thousands who are residing there, for instance, it's almost an impossibility to get what's called the ‘carte de séjour’, which is a residence permit in the country.

This is why so many are left by themselves in this informality, unable to participate in Tunisian society despite of them. And this is the paradox of the country having signed all these different conventions, but not having implemented any of them.

Since we are talking about migration via the Mediterranean route. Is there an African countries geographically close to Europe that has an effective local framework for migration?

Ahlam Chemlali: Morocco is one example where they have implemented policies and they have a kind of integration mechanism so they can regularize the thousands [of migrants]. But we still see, despite of this, which is referred to as the Humanitarian Migration policy ; we still see in periods these forced expulsions and forced deportations to the desert. So although there are policies in the case of Morocco, there still are practices that are unlawful and that are working against migrants in the country.

**Why have the forced expulsions of migrants in Sfax been seen as a turning point in how Tunisia deals with migration when we can look back to President Kais Saied's speech that was very ominous...

Ahlam Chemlali: I think it has been a turning point in the sense that we have seen a new level of brutality and impunity from the Tunisian side as well as the backdrop. This has been happening while the EU has been negotiating with Tunisia.

I appreciate you mentioning that this is not new in a sense, because I would like to stress that what we have witnessed in Sfax has in many ways been just the latest in a long chain of events that's been brewing in the country due to the absence of an official migration policy, as I mentioned, but also intertwined with the years of EU pressure to contain people on Tunisian territory and really to pressure Tunisia into having thousands of migrants stuck and stranded there without having any infrastructure or humanitarian assistance.

So it is the result of these tensions coming together and also the underlying anti-Black racism in Tunisian society. Of course, the very deep, deep, crisis the country is facing with a collapsing economy, post-pandemic food shortages and inflation, and also the very increasingly authoritarian and unpredictable president and this has really come together and created this intense pressure cooker situation that we saw in Sfax kind of erupting. And now we are also witnessing the horrific consequences of this, because there are reports coming out now that men and women and children are being found dead in the desert where people have been bused and expulsed to the Libyan side. They are dying of heat thirst with no water or of food because of this now.

I would like us to discuss more in depth the repercussions of president Kaies Saied's infamous speech.  He in fact used a  theory that had been popularized by a party known as the TNP. Could you tell us more about the so-called scheme to change Tunisia's demographics?

Ahlam Chemlali: The speech that president Kaies Saied gave in February where he invoked the 'great replacement theory' and called Sub-Saharan migrants residing in the country as being criminals or illegals and wanting to or participating in a plot to change the demographic of the Tunisian identity has really gained ground. 

This the dangerous point that this speech has kind of mobilized some discourses in the society. As you mentioned, there's a party really living off these, misinformation campaigns, but also, conspiracy theories which are baseless and racist. On social media, you have also seen many of these groups kind of galvanizing these theories and also Tunisian politicians who have been using migrants as scapegoats during this crisis that they are finding themselves in. 

So, for instance, the food crisis has been blamed on migrants, which is obviously not in any ways near any truth, and as well as medicine shortages that have been happening. And it's due to obviously political failures, but migrants are being blamed for all of these. Tunisians who are already facing all of these multiple crises or are believing or some way trusting that what the politicians are saying is true. 

This misinformation combined with the racial tensions, has really also created this hostile movements towards the migrants and increased xenophobic attacks and and racist attacks on the streets of Tunisia. And it's obviously a very sad development because Tunisia was one of the few countries in Africa who, again, in 2018 implemented these the law against racism. But what we have seen with many as I also mentioned earlier, laws and reforms are not being implemented or practiced. So it's on paper but it's not in practice at all.

On July 23rd, Italian premier Giorgia Meloni hosted amon other leaders delegation from both northern and sub-Saharan Africa for a migration and development conference paving the way for donors' fund. This came after the E.U. and Tunisia penned what was referred to as a "strategic partnership" to manage migration and back Tunisia's ailing economy. Can the migration crisis end in Tunisia? What role E.U. leaders can play and what do they want?

I think that the EU are now planning and hoping that the kind of deal it signed with Tunisia will be some sort of a blueprint or a template for future collaborations with other countries. They're also already speaking to Egypt, and I think more countries will follow. 

I think what's important is that to change this course is, for instance, a country like Tunisia to reform its policies so that it has, in fact, a national framework on migration and asylum, because without it, we will continue to face this protection gap for thousands and thousands of migrants in the country. 

At the same time, it's important because the EU has a key role when it comes to immigration and border control to rethink the deals that it's making. These deals can be scrutinized because Tunisia currently is facing an authoritarian leaderships with a worrying development. Opposition leaders are being imprisoned as well as journalists. So the E.U has to really rethink if it really wants to go down that road and make deals with authoritarian leaders in the name of stopping migration and continue to have migration as a kind of a constant part of the negotiation, instead of just having so-called neutral partnership that are not contingents of migration-control all the time.

I think this is really the crux of the matter to rethink these roles and also to to stop this 'securitization' of migration, which is only going to bolster the security apparatus in a country that's already turning authoritarian.

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