Tunis, Tunisia – Nikki Yanga left the Democratic Republic of the Congo for Tunisia five months ago, dreaming of a better life.
There was the potential to work in Tunisia itself, or to use the North African country as a springboard to travel to Europe, as many migrants and refugees have done in the past.
Keep readinglist of 3 items
Those dreams have now been turned upside down. Instead, her only hope is that she can make it back home, away from a rising tide of racism in Tunisia that has emerged following anti-migrant statements issued by President Kais Saied.
Yanga spoke to Al Jazeera from outside the Congolese embassy as she fearfully waited to hear if she had been approved for voluntary repatriation, a return to a country she had left after the death of her father.
“There was nothing left for me in the DR Congo; I heard that Tunisia was a beautiful and tolerant country, so I decided to travel,” Yanga explained.
With some friends, Yanga says that she had journeyed overland, passing through several countries, before crossing the border from Algeria to Tunisia with a group of sub-Saharan African migrants and refugees, aided by a people smuggler, three months ago.
“There were approximately 20 of us from the DR Congo, Guinea and the Ivory Coast, and I paid 250 euros ($266) to the smuggler,” Yanga said.
However, her plans soon fell apart, as she was unable to find a job, and, without money, unable to buy enough food or rent a home.
“I spent each day looking for work or for someone to help me find a place to stay … [but] I was constantly harassed by police,” Yanga said.
Yanga said her life in Tunisia has progressively worsened, particularly following President Saied’s February 21 comments at the country’s National Security Council, in which he said migration from sub-Saharan Africa aimed to change Tunisia’s national identity.
“The undeclared goal of the successive waves of illegal immigration is to consider Tunisia a purely African country that has no affiliation to the Arab and Islamic nations,” Saied, who has taken an increasingly authoritarian turn since suspending parliament and dissolving the government in July 2021, said.
He added that undocumented immigration to Tunisia had led to violence and crime, and needed to end quickly.
Official figures show that there are approximately 21,000 undocumented Africans in Tunisia.
Those comments, and Saied’s rhetoric since then, have been denounced by the president’s opponents and the African Union, and have led to what has been described by advocacy groups as a racist backlash against sub-Saharan Africans living in Tunisia, as well as Black Tunisians, particularly on social media.
The far-right Tunisian National Party has also led a campaign calling for the expulsion of sub-Saharan African immigrants, framing immigration to Tunisia from other parts of Africa as being part of an effort to initiate demographic change in the country, an idea that has parallels with the European far right’s “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which posits that immigration from Africa and Asia is aimed at replacing white people in Europe.
Migrants and refugees have used social media to show the consequences of some of that rhetoric.
Videos show physical attacks on the people themselves, as well as on their homes.
Tunisian security forces, however, appear to be targeting the migrants themselves, rather than the perpetrators of the attacks.
According to Lawyers Without Borders, an advocacy group, approximately 800 sub-Saharan Africans have been arrested. Others have been evicted from homes they had rented, or have lost their jobs.
Yanga herself says that she has since been attacked by two men who took a bag containing her passport.
“The attack took place a few days after the Tunisian president spoke,” Yanga said. “His speech was inciteful against us, and its results have begun to appear.”
With a continuing security clampdown on illegal immigration, and, fearful of being imprisoned because of her immigration status, Yanga says that she has not gone to the police following the attack.
Instead, she is hoping that the DR Congo will follow in the footsteps of other African countries, such as Guinea and the Ivory Coast, in working to bring her home.