Tunisia: the city of Sfax sinks into chaos between the migration crisis and the absence of the state

The death of a Tunisian, stabbed to death on Monday during an altercation with illegal immigrants, sparked an explosion of violence against sub-Saharan migrants in the port city of Sfax. For months, its citizens had tried to alert the public authorities to a situation that had become explosive.

A real “black man hunt”. In recent evenings, in several districts of Sfax, Tunisia’s second city, dozens of sub-Saharan migrants have been targeted and sometimes driven out of the city by groups of residents demanding the immediate expulsion of illegal immigrants.

The death of a Tunisian on Monday in clashes with migrants, three of whom are suspected of murder, ignited the firestorm in this port city in the central east of the country, forcing the government to deploy vital police reinforcements. At the same time, videos of punitive expeditions were widely broadcast on social networks, which caused a real outcry.

This explosion of violence, which left dozens injured, comes in a context of strong social tensions in this city, caught between a major migration crisis, significant economic difficulties and failing authorities.

“Two Woes That Meet”

On Wednesday, after another night of violence, a precarious calm had returned to Sfax. Fearing for their safety, several hundred sub-Saharan Africans gathered at the train station to flee the city. “They left this morning by public transport or by train to escape the violence,” explains ‘s special correspondent Lilia Blaise. “Others told us to stay in their homes for fear of being attacked”.

03:48 In Sfax, migrants hunted south of the Sahara after the death of a Tunisian ©

If the situation has taken a new step since Monday, the divide between locals and migrants south of the Sahara is not a new phenomenon. The influx of illegal immigrants is the subject of recurrent tensions in certain districts of Sfax, which sometimes turn tragic.

In late May, a 30-year-old Beninese man was fatally stabbed by a group of young Tunisians during an attack on 19 migrants in a house in El Haffara, a popular district of the city. A month later, just days before the new tragedy, hundreds of people demonstrated in front of the city’s prefecture, equating the presence of migrants with “a threat to the safety of the inhabitants”.

“In Sfax we have two miseries that meet, the miseries of a desperate local population and this population of desperate migrants waiting to leave” laments Franck Yotedje, director of the association Afrique Intelligence, aid to migrants in the city.

“The clashes take place for the most part in working-class neighborhoods, where the population lives in rather unsafe conditions. Many irregular migrants choose these neighborhoods because they can have housing without a contract,” he continues.

“In this difficult socio-economic context, the growing number of migrants are easy scapegoats,” he laments.

Departure hub for Italy

Over the past year, the number of departures to Europe has exploded from this coastal city, which is home to the country’s third largest port.

According to the Tunisian authorities, 14,000 migrants were intercepted in the first three months of 2023, a figure five times higher than in 2022 during the same period.

“Many of these migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa, therefore from West African countries that do not need a visa to Tunisia,” explains Franck Yotedje. “They arrive by plane as tourists, therefore legally. Others enter irregularly, especially by road from Algeria to Tunisia or even from Libya”.

When arrested at sea, exile candidates are brought back to Sfax. They are then most often released in the city, due to a lack of a solution, fueling the vicious circle of the migration crisis.

This attractiveness of the city is explained by the proximity of the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is only 200 km from Sfax, but also and above all by the increase in power in recent years of criminal networks of smugglers.

The Tunisian revolution, which resulted in January 2011 in the resignation of the President of the Republic of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, caused a wave of massive Tunisian immigration to Europe, of which Sfax was one of the main points. Since then, it has continued, fueled by the economic crisis raging in the country, which has generated income and encouraged vocations.

Sub-Saharan networks have arrived, have “learned from contact with Tunisian smugglers and created their own networks”, National Guard spokesman Houssem Eddine Jebali explained to in April.

“These sectors have developed by using the resources of this industrial and fishing town, which concentrates a large number of technicians and craftsmen specialized in the maintenance of boats. They have organized themselves, especially to bring back the raw materials, such as iron. to the boats and to procure the engines”.

06:11 Focus © Failed mode

Faced with this worsening crisis, many observers point to the passivity of the state and, in particular, the responsibility of President Kaïs Saïed.

Since coming to power in October 2019, the latter has imposed a hyper-presidential regime through a series of reforms, including the introduction of a new constitution or even the dissolution of municipal councils. In January 2023, he dismissed the governor of Sfax, Fakher Fakhfakh, who has still not been replaced.

Affected by the economic crisis that is growing in the country, the city of Sfax has also for years faced major problems with waste management, which continue despite the promises of the state and contribute to this distrust in more tangible ways.

Finally, in February, Kaïs Saïed gave a shocking speech against illegal immigration, presenting it as a demographic threat to his country. This action had earned him accusations of racism and sparked an outbreak of tension between residents and migrants in several localities. Despite his call for action “at all levels, diplomatic, security and military”, the situation in Sfax continued to deteriorate.

On Wednesday, the local branch of the powerful trade union center UGTT accused the president of exacerbating the phenomenon of illegal immigration “by playing the role of policeman in the Mediterranean, intercepting the boats of illegal sub-Saharan African migrants and transporting them to Sfax”.

Franck Yotedje, for his part, regrets the lack of attention to alarms from actors in the field. “We have repeatedly called on 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 migrants face in Sfax, the director of Afrique Intelligence fears that these tensions will result in an increase in tragedies at sea.

This concern is all the greater as attempts to cross are now being made more and more frequently on board metal canoes, which are cheaper but much more dangerous than the rubber boats that have been used so far.

“Desperately, these people are taking the boat to Italy in increasingly dangerous conditions. In recent months we have seen many shipwrecks in the region. There is no doubt that unpreparedness due to the hasty departures plays a role,” he concludes.

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