BEIRUT: Weeks after a violent crackdown on migrants in Tunisia that triggered a perilous rush to leave by smuggler boats for Italy, many African nationals are still homeless and jobless and some say they still face racist attacks.
Outside the UN refugee agency in Tunis, dozens of African migrants stood protesting this week by the temporary camp where they have lived, including with children, since authorities urged landlords to force them from their homes.
“We need evacuation. Tunisia is not safe. No one has a future here when you have this color. It is a crime to have this color,” said Josephus Thomas, pointing to the skin on his forearm.
In announcing the crackdown on Feb. 21, President Kais Saied said illegal immigration was a criminal conspiracy to change Tunisia’s demography, language the African Union described as “racialized hate speech.”
US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf said Saied’s comments had unleashed “attacks and a tidal wave of racist rhetoric,” with rights groups saying hundreds of migrants reported being attacked or insulted.
Saied and Tunisia’s foreign minister have rejected accusations that he or the government are racist and they announced steps to ease visa regulations for Africans and reminded police of anti-racism laws.
While the official crackdown appeared to end weeks ago, migrants say they still face abuse.
“People told me ‘since you are in our country after the president’s speech, don’t you have any dignity?’ I kept silent and they told me I am dirt,” said Awadhya Hasan Amine, a Sudanese refugee outside the UNHCR headquarters in Tunis.
Amine has lived in Tunis for five years after fleeing Sudan and then Libya with her husband. Now 30, she has been living on the street outside the UNHCR headquarters since local people pelted her house in the capital’s Rouad district with rocks.
“We want to live in a place of safety, stability and peace. We don’t want problems in Tunisia,” she said.
Although some West African countries evacuated hundreds of their citizens earlier this month, many remain stuck in Tunisia, unable to support themselves let alone afford passage home or pay smugglers hundreds of dollars to ferry them to Europe.
“Tunisia is an African country. Why do they do racist things to us?” said Moumin Sou, from Mali, who was sacked from his job working behind a bar after the president’s speech and was beaten up the next day by a man in the street who stole his money.
Sou wants to return home, he said, but many others are determined to travel on to Europe.
In the wake of the crackdown, in which police detained hundreds of undocumented migrants and authorities urged employers to lay them off and landlords to evict them, smuggler crossings to Italy have surged.
Tunisian National Guard official Houssem Jbeli said on Wednesday alone the coast guard had stopped 30 boats carrying more than 2,000 people. On the same day and the following day four boats sank, with five people drowned, authorities said.