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Tunisian authorities target Black migrants in crackdown on sub-Saharan Africans

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In Tunisia, police are forcibly removing Black migrants from homeless encampments in the country's capital. It's the latest development in President Kais Saied's crackdown on migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. Saied made anti-Black and xenophobic remarks back in February, which prompted mob violence and evictions. Black migrants, students, asylum-seekers are now living in fear. This as police have randomly detained and deported scores of people. For more on this, we turn to Monica Marks. She's a professor at NYU Abu Dhabi and has been following the situation in Tunisia. Good morning, Monica. And thanks for being on the program.

MONICA MARKS: Good morning. Thanks for covering this.

FADEL: So you've been speaking with some of the migrants in Tunis who've been evicted and are now living on the streets. What have they told you?

MARKS: They've told me that they fled anti-Black, racist pogroms, mob violence that included stabbings, thefts of their money and meager possessions, their phones, and forced evictions from their homes after President Kais Saied of Tunisia, who has become a new autocrat in the Arab Spring's first and only democracy, issued this February 21 speech that you mentioned.

FADEL: Yeah.

MARKS: In that speech, he argued that Black Africans were settler colonizing Tunisia. And he drew on a racist conspiracy theory that argued Europe and America are using Black Africans to colonize Tunisia just like, they claim, those countries, those continents used Jews to colonize Palestine. So the president really elevated this racist language. And it rendered hundreds, if not thousands of Black people in Tunisia homeless overnight. So they've been really struggling.

FADEL: Why did the president invoke this racist conspiracy theory, frankly, that we've been seeing used by white supremacists in the West, the same type of language?

MARKS: That's right. It's a local version of the great replacement theory, probably a combination of two reasons. First, he's been on a march towards dictatorial repression since making a self-coup in which he closed the democratically elected parliament in July of 2021. And he's been looking for scapegoats. So at the same time that he made this speech against Black Africans, he was also creating dozens of political prisoners in Tunisia. So he's been looking for scapegoats in the Tunisian political class and amongst the most vulnerable migrants and refugees in the country. I think the second reason is that he seems to honestly believe a lot of this stuff. He's a deeply conspiratorial thinker. He's very erratic, very unstable and esoteric in his thinking. And he tends to be most closely associated with very conspiratorial ideologues who get a lot of their ideas from the darkest corners of Facebook, which is very poorly monitored and regulated in Tunisia.

FADEL: Now, his racist comments caused international outcry, rebukes. Amnesty International has called on the president to retract his comments, to stem the violence. Any sign that he'll backtrack, that he'll try to stop this?

MARKS: So fortunately, he hasn't made more of these pronouncements since the February 21 speech. And his government seems to be trying to backtrack on some of these comments, although they're not apologizing for them outright or rolling back the policy. But vulnerable migrants and UNHCR-certified refugees are still being caught in the crossfire. There's a group of about a hundred that have been camping homeless for safety and protection in front of the United Nations' refugee agency's headquarters in Tunis. Nobody has been able to provide them with shelter. Landlords in Tunisia are afraid to rent to them because of the president's speech.

Tunisians and foreigners, many of them have been afraid to deliver food, tents and other essentials to these people because they're being stopped and interrogated at police checkpoints. So we still see the Tunisian security apparatus working to target not just the migrants and card carrying refugees, but anybody who's trying to help them. And we haven't seen a vocal response against these policies yet from the IOM or UNHCR, the United Nations organizations, to the extent that these organizations are actually able to concretely help these people, which is why we saw an escalation yesterday between this group of homeless people who are, frankly, desperate and out of options and the police.

FADEL: Monica Marks is a professor at NYU Abu Dhabi. Thank you, Monica.

MARKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.