Sfax, Tunisia – Fear mixes with resignation at Sfax’s louage station, the marshalling point for the shared taxis that connect Tunisia.
The long and motionless line to escape the city comprises representatives from most of sub-Saharan Africa. Many have already experienced intense hardship on their long and hazardous journeys to Tunisia. Now, after an altercation with a local man turned deadly, they are fleeing Sfax for fear of their lives.
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Given the very nature of irregular migration, no one can tell the numbers of undocumented African migrants, either in Tunisia or in Sfax. However, that their numbers appear to be increasing appears unarguable.
The death of the man on Monday during skirmishes with the city’s Black migrants looks to have ignited the region’s long-smouldering touchpaper, giving rise to clashes between residents and migrants that, on Tuesday morning, one onlooker described as “like civil war”.
The subsequent arrest of three men from Cameroon for the murder – and the detention of a further 34 on charges of entering the country illegally – have done little to calm the mood of many in the city fixed on vengeance.
Overnight, many were rounded up and placed on buses before being driven to what Human Rights Watch has said is the militarised border between Tunisia and Libya. There, men, women and even children have been left to endure the intense heat while they await some kind of solution.
Sheltering under a banner, desperate to escape the day’s heat, Mohammed from Sierra Leone stands with three others by the roadside, their entire worldly goods in backpacks by their feet. He travelled through chaos-riven Libya, finding himself imprisoned and ransomed by armed groups there, before ending up in Sfax.
“I lost both my parents and my brother in Sierra Leone,” he said. “The violence here is very tough. Tunisian boys, they came and hit the door, forcing their way in. They hit me and forced us out. If I have the opportunity, I will go to Europe.”
Mohammed said the previous night, a group of Tunisian boys attacked him and his friends.
“They hit us with cutlasses [machetes],” he explained, gesturing to his friend’s bandaged arm, from which blood still seeps through.
Public and government sentiment
Mohammed’s experience is anything but unique. It finds near-perfect echoes among the hundreds of undocumented African migrants forced from their homes and now living rough on the street.
Most lived in Tunisia peacefully before President Kais Saied’s racist speech last February, where he spoke of the “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” who had come to Tunisia, bringing with them “all the violence, crime, and unacceptable practices”.
Subsequent attempts to dismiss the discriminatory tone of that speech as a “misunderstanding” have done little to reverse public sentiment. In Sfax particularly, concerns over food shortages, Tunisia’s own tanking economy, and ingrained unemployment have all fuelled the distrust of those from sub-Saharan Africa, all the while adding momentum to the exodus of Tunisians from the country of their birth.
As Tunisians’ financial circumstances have deteriorated, the presence of so many undocumented African migrants has offered a lifeline to a select few. With little money in hand, and possessed with a desperate urge to reach Europe, sub-Saharan migrants have proven ideal customers for many locals living along the Sfax coastline, who now make a living welding small, flat-bottomed boats together that will hopefully take their human cargo on one-way trips to Europe.
With individual fares priced at about 3,000 Tunisian dinars, ($970) and passengers numbering up to 38 per boat, the financial returns are overwhelming for many. However, relying upon one migrant and a GPS, a crash course in marine navigation, car tyres for lifeboats, and occasionally watered-down petrol, the risks to the passengers themselves are intense.
Within the shade of the city’s traditional shopping district, the medina, a 17-year-old youth – who with a grin gives his name as Zidan Chouchen – works on the stall that he travels into the city to tend daily. He says with some pride that he has almost earned enough to pay for his own irregular crossing to Europe.
All the same, despite his own specific circumstances, he has little sympathy for the undocumented African migrants in his city.
“You rent a house to two people then they bring friends, then more friends,” he said. “Soon they are sleeping on the roof and the neighbours are complaining.
“For us when we go to Europe we have an object: to rent a house and build a new life. For them, when they come here, they just want to start fights, take money and act like gangsters. Now they’re killing people,” he said.
Chouchen is unlikely to have to make the journey in a metal boat. Odds are that his crossing will occur on a wooden boat with a skipper known to either him, his family or his friends. Even the desperate have their class system.
‘Coming for their jobs’
Official rhetoric over the crises in Sfax is ramping up. On Wednesday, the speaker of the parliament, Brahim Bouderbala, called upon President Saied to intervene to “save Sfax” from the influx of undocumented migrants who threaten it.
A delegation of senior security officials was dispatched to the city to help tackle a situation that Saied himself has described as “abnormal“, albeit one couched in the kind of conspiracy thinking that has come to typify much of the president’s worldview.
However, while many of the undocumented African migrants in Sfax are bracing themselves for further forced removals, nuance remains.
“All the sub-Saharan migrants that come into my café and that I meet are fine,” coffee shop owner Nadhem Trigi told Al Jazeera. “They come here with nothing so often have to live in [working class] neighbourhoods.”
Trigi said while most of the violence comes from his fellow countrymen, it is not about racism per se.
“They are worried the sub-Saharan migrants are coming for their money, their jobs. They worry about someone coming to their place and taking what’s theirs,” he said. “We’re already in an economic crisis. There’s no food in the market. This is how people react.”
In Tunisia, Sfax has come to be synonymous with racial tensions. However, for European policymakers, currently preparing to disburse about 1 billion euros ($1.1bn) in aid, the city has come to represent much more.
While the exact details of the deal – and what Tunisia may have to offer remain in return – remain unknown, the prospect of partnering with the country’s hardline president – and a society mired in economic crisis – are challenges also unarguably on the table.