The death of a Tunisian man, stabbed to death on Monday during an altercation with illegal immigrants, has sparked an explosion of violence against sub-Saharan migrants in the port city of Sfax. Its citizens had spent months trying to alert authorities to a situation that had turned explosive.
A true “black hunt”. In recent nights, dozens of sub-Saharan immigrants have been attacked and, in some cases, expelled from the city in various neighborhoods of Sfax, Tunis’s second city, by groups of residents demanding the immediate expulsion of illegal immigrants.
The death of a Tunisian on Monday during clashes with migrants, three of whom are suspected in the murder, unleashed a storm in this central-eastern port city, forcing the government to deploy large police reinforcements. At the same time, videos of the punitive expeditions were widely shared on social media, creating a real furor.
This outbreak of violence, which left dozens injured, occurs in a context of strong social tensions in the city, which finds itself between a major migration crisis, great economic difficulties and failing authorities.
“Two Miseries Meet”
On Wednesday, after another night of violence, an uneasy calm had returned to Sfax. Fearing for their safety, several hundred sub-Saharans gathered at the station to flee the city. “They left this morning by public transport or by train to flee the violence,” explained the special correspondent for France 24 in French, Lilia Blaise. “Others have told us that they are barricaded in their homes for fear of being attacked.”
Although the situation worsened on Monday, disagreements between the local population and sub-Saharan migrants are not a new phenomenon. The influx of illegal immigrants is the subject of recurring tensions in certain areas of Sfax, which sometimes turn tragic.
At the end of May, a 30-year-old man, originally from Benin, was fatally stabbed by a group of Tunisian youths during an attack against 19 immigrants in a house in El Haffara, a popular neighborhood of the city. A month later, a few days before the latest tragedy, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the city prefecture, describing the presence of migrants as a “threat to the safety of the inhabitants.”
“In Sfax two types of misery come together: that of a local population that is on its last legs and that of this population of desperate migrants who are waiting to leave,” lamented Franck Yotedje, director of the association ‘Afrique Intelligence’, which helps migrants immigrants in the city.
“Most of the clashes take place in popular neighborhoods, where people live in quite precarious conditions. Many irregular immigrants choose these areas because they can get accommodation without a contract,” he continues.
“In this difficult socioeconomic context, the growing number of immigrants is an easy scapegoat,” he laments.
Departure axis to Italy
In the last year, the number of departures to Europe has skyrocketed from this coastal city, which is home to the country’s third port.
According to the Tunisian authorities, in the first three months of 2023, 14,000 migrants were intercepted, five times more than in 2022 in the same period.
“Many of these migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, that is, from West African countries that do not need a visa to enter Tunisia,” explains Franck Yotedje. “They arrive by plane as tourists, that is, legally. Others enter irregularly, mainly by road from Algeria to Tunisia or even from Libya.”
When they are stopped at sea, the would-be exiles are driven to Sfax. Afterwards, they are usually released in the city, in the absence of a solution, fueling the vicious circle of the migration crisis.
The attractiveness of the city is explained by its proximity to the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 200 km from Sfax, but also, and above all, by the rise of criminal networks of smugglers in recent years.
The Tunisian revolution, which led to the departure of the President of the Republic of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, in January 2011, triggered a wave of massive Tunisian immigration to Europe, of which Sfax was one of the main points of arrival. departure. Since then, this surge has continued, fueled by the country’s economic crisis, generating income and inspiring new vocations.
In April, the spokesman for the National Guard, Houssem Eddine Jebali, told France 24 that sub-Saharan networks have arrived who “have learned from contact with Tunisian smugglers and have created their own networks.”
“These networks have been developed using the resources of this industrial and fishing city, which is home to a large number of technicians and artisans specialized in boat maintenance. They have been organized, in particular, to bring raw materials such as iron for boats, and to obtain motors”.
The inaction of the State
Given the worsening of the crisis, many observers point to the inaction of the State and, in particular, to the responsibility of President Kaïs Said.
Since coming to power in October 2019, he has established a hyper-presidential regime through a series of reforms, including the introduction of a new Constitution and the dissolution of municipal councils. In January 2023, he removed the Governor of Sfax, Fakher Fakhfakh, who has not yet been replaced.
Hit by the country’s growing economic crisis, the city of Sfax has also had to deal with significant waste management problems for years, which have persisted despite government promises and are contributing to this increasingly palpable mistrust.
Finally, in February, Kaïs Said delivered a shock speech against illegal immigration, calling it a demographic threat to his country. The speech earned him accusations of racism and sparked an outbreak of tension between residents and immigrants in several towns. Despite her call for action “at all levels, diplomatic, security and military”, the situation in Sfax has continued to deteriorate.
On Wednesday, the local branch of the powerful UGTT trade union center accused the president of having exacerbated the phenomenon of clandestine immigration by “playing the role of a Mediterranean policeman, intercepting boats of illegal sub-Saharan immigrants and transporting them to Sfax.”
Franck Yotedje, for his part, regrets the lack of attention to the warnings of those who work on the ground. “We have repeatedly asked the Tunisian authorities to do their job, to protect the population, both migrants and Tunisians, because the responsibility for security lies with the state.”
In addition to the dangers to which migrants are exposed in Sfax, the director of ‘Afrique Intelligence’ fears that these tensions will translate into a worsening of tragedies at sea.
This concern is heightened by the fact that more and more crossing attempts are now being made in metal dinghies, cheaper but far more dangerous than the rubber dinghies used in the past.
“In desperation, these people are embarking for Italy in increasingly dangerous conditions. In recent months there have been many shipwrecks in the region. There is no doubt that the lack of preparation due to hasty departures is playing a role,” he concludes. .
*Adapted from its original in French