Xenophobia and frustration in Tunisia’s migration hub of Sfax directed at Black African asylum seekers and migrants has turned to violence and left hundreds who fled or were forced out stranded in a remote militarised zone on the Libyan border with no supplies.
Months of rising tensions boiled over last week in the coastal city, which has become a major gathering point for people trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe.
On 3 July, former deputy mayor Mohamed Wajdi Aydi warned that the situation in the city was becoming untenable. “I fear we’re going to see very serious confrontations which we can’t prevent from happening,” Aydi told The New Humanitarian.
Later that day, a Tunisian man was stabbed to death during clashes between Sfax residents and asylum seekers and migrants. The clashes had been going on for several days, with police firing tear gas to try to break up the confrontations.
Three men from Cameroon were arrested for the killing. The man’s funeral then turned into a demonstration, with attendees calling to avenge the death. In its wake, groups of people attacked asylum seekers and migrants across the city.
Videos showed police detaining asylum seekers and migrants at their homes and putting them into police cars. Hundreds were deported across Tunisia’s borders with Libya and Algeria, where they were left in no man’s land without food, water, or shelter.
Human rights organisations that were in contact with the people deported to Algeria have since lost touch with the group, while others sent to Libya were reportedly sheltering under a tree in the remote militarised zone with no assistance. The Tunisian Red Crescent said it had picked up and provided shelter to some 630 migrants and asylum seekers on 8-9 July, but NGOs fear many more remain unaccounted for.
Sfax, with around 300,000 residents, is Tunisia’s second largest city, after the capital, Tunis, and it is an economic engine for the country. This year, the city has also become a major departure hub for asylum seekers and migrants hoping to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, as Tunisia’s economy has sputtered, political repression has increased, and hostility and violence towards Black African asylum seekers and migrants has been rising.
Some Tunisians have blamed them for Tunisia’s economic woes and accuse them of committing crimes. In a February speech widely denounced as racist, Tunisian President Kais Saied echoed this rhetoric, touching off attacks against Black Africans and leading many to lose their jobs and be expelled from their homes.
There has been a “void” when it comes to addressing migration at a national level, and a lack of guidance on the local level since Saied fired the governor of Sfax in January, without providing a reason, and then dissolved the municipal council in March, according to Aydi. “Right now it’s a vacuum,” he said.
‘They don’t want us to be here’
When The New Humanitarian visited Sfax in mid-June, the atmosphere was already tense. In the neighbourhood of Bab Jebli, groups of Black Africans gathered on an esplanade outside the old city’s walls.
Tunisian vendors sold fish and clothing from stalls. Asylum seekers and migrants had also set up stalls in the same area, but they were chased away at the end of May by police after a fight with local residents and set up a new market across the street near an upscale apartment block.
“I was searching for a better opportunity, but I’m now stuck here with nothing.”
The strip of land housing the new market – dotted with rubbish bags, plastic bottles, and other waste – housed around 15 stalls where dozens of women from Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Senegal, and elsewhere sold spices, sauces, eggs, tea, cooked meat, facial creams, and hair care products. The goods were displayed on low, small tables, and the smell of cooking stew filled the air. Near the edge of the market, a few people were grilling fish.
Behind the stalls, selling spices, were hairdressers specialising in African braids. Benedicte, a 28-year-old Ivorian, was watching one of them style a customer’s hair. She often comes to the market to help the hairdressers.
“I’ve been looking for work, but it’s so difficult. We’re only just managing here,” Benedicte said, guessing that each hairdresser gets two to three customers a day for a hairdo costing around 50 Tunisian dinars ($16).
Like many other West Africans, Benedicte initially moved to Tunis with her husband to study. She finished her training as a nurse and worked at a clinic for a period of time. But that was nearly two years ago.
As economic conditions deteriorated and hostility towards Black Africans rose, the couple came to Sfax to try to cross the sea to Europe. At the end of March, they boarded a boat, but it capsized. Benedicte survived. Her husband died at sea – joining hundreds of others who have perished attempting the journey this year.
“I was searching for a better opportunity, but I’m now stuck here with nothing,” Benedicte said.
Since then, a fellow Ivorian woman has been taking care of her. She spends time in her friend’s flat or socialises with other female friends in the neighbourhood. Life has become harder for African asylum seekers and migrants, she said, with police chasing them often and residents trying to force them to leave the market area.
“We’re not safe anymore. They don’t want us to be here and work,” Benedicte said. “I will try to reach Europe one more time, but if I fail again I will return to my country.”
‘There’s a void on this issue’
Officially, there are around 21,000 asylum seekers and migrants from African countries outside of North Africa registered in Tunisia, but the real figure is likely higher according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).
Aydi, the former deputy mayor of Sfax, who was in office from 2012 to 2017 and from 2018 to 2023, watched the arrivals increase over the years and estimates there are around 25,000 currently in the city – mainly from West and Central African countries like Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger.
“Migrants are left to their own devices, and so are locals.”
The majority fly to Tunis airport. Others are rescued or intercepted by the Tunisian Coast Guard – which receives support from the EU – after departing from Libya en route to Europe, or they cross Tunisia’s land borders from Libya or Algeria.
Traditionally, Tunisians have accounted for the lion’s share of people departing from their country’s shores toward Europe, with the number of attempted crossings fluctuating over the years. But that ratio has started to shift this year as conditions for Black Africans in Tunisia have deteriorated and word has spread about the country being a departure location.
In just six months, nearly 38,000 people have arrived in Italy after departing from Tunisia. Thousands more have been intercepted or rescued at sea by the Tunisian Coast Guard. More than 1,700 have died attempting the crossing from both Tunisia and Libya this year alone.
Aydi said the lack of a national policy on migration issues has pushed the Sfax residents to pressure officials to act. “There’s a void on this issue. Migrants are left to their own devices, and so are locals,” he told The New Humanitarian.
He criticised the “absence of [a] national strategy” to tackle migration in a humane fashion. “Such lack of vision has complicated the situation for both the migrant community and the local population,” he said.
The Italian island of Lampedusa is less than 200 kilometres away from Sfax’s coastline. And Black Africans are able to find a way to earn enough to survive because of the city’s relatively affordable cost of living, though most jobs are in the informal sector and pay below market wages, according to Hamida Chaieb, a lawyer in Sfax and member of the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH).
“Migrants can make a little money until they add up to their savings and pay for the crossing to Europe,” Franck Yotedje, the head of the migrants rights group Tunisian Association Afrique Intelligence, told The New Humanitarian.
Men usually work in agriculture, construction, cafes, and restaurants, while women tend to be employed as housemaids and nannies, with their wage hovering at 20-25 Tunisian dinars ($6.50-8) per day.
Passage on a boat to Italy can cost between 4,000 and 7,000 Tunisian dinars ($1,300-2,300), according to Chaieb. “Migrants in Sfax are in an irregular situation, so they take up any work just to collect the cash needed and plan on leaving,” he said.
‘I no longer feel safe’
The fallout from the recent violence in Sfax, and what impact it will have on migration in Tunisia and the Mediterranean, remains to be seen. But even before the escalation, it was clear that the situation had become untenable.
When The New Humanitarian visited, Hassan Doumbia, a 29-year-old from Côte d’Ivoire, who asked to use a pseudonym for security reasons, sat with a group of other men by the makeshift market. He had worked as an artisan in Tunisia but had been jobless since he was fired by his boss shortly after the president’s February speech.
“Ever since Saied’s speech, I no longer feel safe and struggle to get work,” he said.
Doumbia escaped Côte d’Ivoire in 2019 after receiving death threats for his opposition to the government and joined his older brother who was already living in Sfax. He originally planned to settle in Tunisia. “I felt at ease with Tunisians at that time,” he said.
But now he said he faced regular harassment from Tunisians and couldn’t make enough money to pay rent on the house he shared with his wife, brother, and sister-in-law. “Tunisia is normally a welcoming country, but now I no longer understand what’s happening,” Doumbia added.
“At the beginning, I came to settle in, but recently I’ve been thinking about leaving,” he continued. “I’m ready to take a risk to head to Italy instead of staying here to be humiliated or aggressed.”
Edited by Tom Brady and Eric Reidy.