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Rights groups decry Tunisian president's 'racist' remarks against migrants

Tunisia's President Kais Saied is pictured at the Tunis-Carthage International Airport, as he receives his Algerian counterpart visiting the Tunisian capital, on December 15, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

International human rights groups have rebuked Tunisian President Kais Saied for making “racist remarks” against migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, calling for an independent probe into attacks fuelled by his rhetoric.

Prominent rights groups, including the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), on Thursday condemned the highly inflammatory remarks made by Saied that they claimed triggered a wave of violence against African migrants in Tunisia.

In a statement, FIDH said it had documented human rights violations including arbitrary arrests and detentions, assaults, evictions and dismissals in the weeks following Saied's remarks.

According to official figures, there are around 21,000 undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa in Tunisia, which is home to around 12 million people.

He said last month that migrants were responsible for most crime in the country and ordered officials to take “urgent measures” to tackle irregular migration.

"Hordes of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa are still arriving, with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails," Saied told his national security council on February, 21, according to the statement.

The remarks immediately triggered widespread protests in the country as hundreds of people gathered in Tunis and chanted "Solidarity with migrants".

Tunisian Workers’ Party condemned Saied’s remarks and accused him of using racism and hatred to divert the people’s attention from his failures in the economic and political spheres, and urged him to tender an apology. 

Earlier this week, the World Bank said it was suspending its work with Tunisia after African migrants were attacked in the country.

The bank's president, David Malpass, said the remarks had triggered "racially motivated harassment and even violence" and the institution had postponed a planned meeting with Tunisia until further notice, the AFP reported.

On Wednesday, the Tunisian president dismissed allegations of racism against him, saying the aim of his speech was to ensure respect for the North African country's "legality regarding foreigners” and to prevent any “jurisdiction parallel to that of the state”.

FIDH, however, rejected Saied's clarification, saying it “did not even include an apology”.

“When racist remarks are repeated, supported and assumed by an entire government, can we still speak of a way out," the rights group said.

Last month, an advocacy group Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) said that Saied's discourse was "drowning in racism and hatred".

Some reports say that migrants in Tunisia have been fleeing out of the Arab country after Saied's "racist" remarks, claiming "a criminal plot" was underway to flood the country with Blacks.

Home to around 12 million people, Tunisia holds around 21,000 undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa, especially the sub-Saharan Africans.

Many migrants from the Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana and Guinea work just for being paid badly, they work under unofficial jobs to get by and save up money for attempts to reach Italy.

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