President Kais Saied claimed migration from sub-Saharan Africa was aimed at changing his country’s demographic makeup.
The African Union (AU) has criticised Tunisia and urged it to avoid “racialised hate speech” following President Kais Saied’s comments directed at migrants from elsewhere on the continent.
Saied ordered the expulsion of undocumented migrants from Tunisia on Tuesday, saying immigration was a plot aimed at changing his country’s demographic composition. Local rights activists condemned his comments, calling them “racist”.
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In a statement issued late on Friday, the AU Commission said it had called Tunisia’s representative for an urgent meeting to register “deep shock and concern at the form and substance” of the remarks on behalf of the continent-wide bloc.
“The Chairperson of the African Union Commission H. E. Moussa Faki Mahamat strongly condemns the shocking statement issued by Tunisian authorities targeting fellow Africans which go against the letter and the spirit of our Organization and founding principles,” read the statement.
The AU reminded Tunisia of its obligation within the 55-member bloc. Faki said AU member states were obligated “to treat all migrants with dignity, wherever they come from, refrain from racialised hate speech that could bring people to harm, and prioritise their safety and human rights”.
Tunisia’s foreign ministry said on Saturday it was surprised by the AU statement and rejected what it called “baseless accusations” that it said misunderstood the government’s position.
Saied, who has seized almost total power since a dramatic July 2021 move against parliament, urged his national security council on Tuesday to take “urgent measures” to tackle irregular migration.
“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,” he said.
Saied’s comments were praised by the French far-right politician Eric Zemmour. This comes as his campaign of arrests has caused widespread fear among sub-Saharan Africans as well as Black Tunisians.
Tunisian rights groups have accused Saied of hate speech.
“It is a racist approach just like the campaigns in Europe,” Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), told Reuters news agency on Tuesday. “The presidential campaign aims to create an imaginary enemy for Tunisians to distract them from their basic problems.”
The president said those accusing him of racism “want division and discord and seek to damage our relations with our brothers”.
Saied said he was not racist and that migrants living in Tunisia legally had nothing to fear.
On Saturday, rights groups planned to hold a demonstration to protest against Saied’s comments and the clampdown on migrants and refugees.
According to official figures quoted by the FTDES, Tunisia, which has a population of some 12 million, is home to more than 21,000 citizens from sub-Saharan African countries.