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Hundreds of migrants flown home from Tunisia after attacks

By AFP - Mar 04,2023 - Last updated at Mar 04,2023

TUNIS — Almost 280 Malians and Ivorians left Tunisia on Saturday on repatriation flights, fearful of a wave of violence since a controversial tirade against migrants by the president.

In February, President Kais Saied ordered officials to take "urgent measures" to tackle irregular migration, claiming without evidence that "a criminal plot" was under way "to change Tunisia's demographic makeup".

Saied charged that migrants were behind most crime in the North African country, fuelling a spate of sackings, evictions and physical attacks.

The African Union expressed "deep shock and concern at the form and substance" of Saied's remarks, while governments in sub-Saharan Africa scrambled to bring home hundreds of fearful nationals who flocked to their embassies for help.

A plane carrying 133 nationals of Mali departed from Tunisia on Saturday at around midday (11:00 GMT), a Malian diplomat said.

The group included "25 women and nine children as well as 25 students", the diplomat added on condition of anonymity.

Two hours later another plane to repatriate 145 Ivorians took off from Tunis, Ivory Coast Ambassador Ibrahim Sy Savane told AFP.

An AFP photographer saw the Malian group leave their embassy in Tunis in the early morning, boarding buses to the airport where a chartered plane awaited.

“The Tunisians don’t like us, so we are forced to leave,” Bagresou Sego told AFP before boarding the bus.

Adrahmen Dombia, who arrived in Tunisia four years ago, said he had to stop his university studies mid-year. “I’m going back because I’m not safe.”

Another Malian migrant, Baril, said he had a permit to stay in Tunisia but joined the repatriation flight anyway.

“We ask President Kais Saied with great respect to consider our other brothers and treat them well,” he told AFP.

A first group, of 50 Guineans, were flown home on Wednesday.

According to official figures, there are around 21,000 undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa in Tunisia, a country of about 12 million inhabitants.

Critics accuse Saied, who has seized almost total power since July 2021, of seeking to install a new dictatorship in the indebted country grappling with inflation and shortages of essential goods.

 

Vigilante violence 

 

Since Saied gave his speech on February 21, rights groups have reported a spike in vigilante violence including stabbings of African migrants.

Jean Badel Gnabli, head of an association of Ivorian migrants in Tunisia, told AFP from the airport that the group leaving on Saturday had “spent the night in hotels”.

The whole community was living in fear, he said earlier. “They feel like they’ve been handed over to mob justice.”

Ambassador Savane said 1,100 Ivorians out of around 7,000 in Tunisia have applied to be repatriated.

Michael Elie Bio Vamet, head of an Ivorian student association, said 30 students signed up for the repatriation flight despite having permits to stay.

“They don’t feel comfortable,” he told AFP by phone. “Some of them were victims of racist acts. Some are at the end of their studies, but others discontinued.”

“There are attacks almost every day, threats, they are even being kicked out by landlords or physically attacked,” he added.

Many African migrants in Tunisia lost their jobs and homes overnight.

Dozens were arrested after identity checks, and some are still being detained.

Migrants whose countries have embassies in Tunisia rushed to them seeking assistance.

The embassies of Ivory Coast and Mali provided emergency accommodation this week for dozens of their citizens who had been evicted from their homes, including young children.

Those with no diplomatic representation in Tunisia set up makeshift camps outside the Tunis offices of the International Organisation for Migration.

Among those heading home are dozens of fee-paying or scholarship students who were enrolled in Tunisian universities and in the country legally.

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