HomeTop StoriesHow African Migrants Survived Racist Attacks in Tunisia

How African Migrants Survived Racist Attacks in Tunisia

Hundreds of African migrants have fled their homes in Sfax

Standing penniless in the street with her one-year-old baby strapped to her back, Louise Fallone describes the moment when masked assailants broke into her home in the Tunisian coastal town of Sfax and chased her away.

“At 2 AM, Tunisian teenagers attacked… They threw stones at us and put a knife to my throat.

“I took my baby and fled without clothes. My Tunisian neighbor threw a blanket over me as I ran.

“They took my money and destroyed everything we had.”

Ms. Fallone came from Ivory Coast about a year ago in search of better economic opportunities and works in a coffee shop.

She was attacked during a spate of xenophobic violence, which occurred about a week ago after the fatal stabbing of a 41-year-old local man during an altercation with several migrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

When the BBC team drove into town, with the temperature gauge in the car reading 40°C, we were the first to see dozens of migrants lined with dusty road signs that read “peace”.

Horns sounded in support as the locals rode past the encampment. And we saw locals handing out bread and water.

But there was no doubt that hostility towards these migrants continued.

Videos of the attack have been widely shared. One shows a masked perpetrator shouting that “black Africans are a threat to us and our women” and then urging people to attack the migrants.

In another, a man yells, “We need to kick all these migrants out. We don’t want them living here.”

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Migrants in Sfax

Tunisian President Kais Saied is accused of fomenting xenophobia

To understand why this city had erupted into such violence, we spent the night with the hundreds of migrants, sleeping on the concrete.

Dozens bore visible injuries we believe were from the July 4th attacks. A woman, suffering from heat stroke, lay almost unconscious.

A total of 25 people, including children, had to be treated in hospital on the night of the attack. A migrant says his seven-year-old brother, who had broken both legs, was with them.

Images from that evening show that the police are present, but that they apparently do not intervene.

Despite numerous requests for comment, police would not speak to us.

The next morning, however, authorities responded by forcibly removing more than 100 migrants from the city and driving to the Tunisia-Libyan border.

Since then, another 1,000 have been removed from the city and taken to both the Libyan and Algerian borders, local Tunisian officials said.

Videos filmed by the migrants at the Tunisia-Libyan border and sent to campaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW) show several people with open wounds and deep cuts.

They claim to have been beaten by the authorities.

HRW said migrants, asylum seekers and students were being deported in what amounted to “collective punishment”. Some of them were legally resident in Tunisia, others were not, it added.

Border authorities declined to comment on the allegations.

However, Tunisian President Kais Saied on Saturday rejected all claims of mistreatment of migrants, saying they received help within what he called “our values.”

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Relative calm has now returned to the streets of Sfax. But in the city’s many coffee shops, the attack is still the only thing anyone can talk about.

Local shopkeeper and activist Miriam Bribri says she is outraged but not surprised by the violence that took place last week.

Miriam Bribri

Miriam Bribri is one of the local residents who stood up for the migrants

“There was a wave of racist videos on social media. I saw such disgusting messages. So I was already afraid that such a flare-up of anger could only result in violence.”

She also blames President Said. Earlier this year, he made highly inflammatory comments, claiming that “hordes of sub-Saharan African migrants” were bringing “violence and crime” into the country.

“What was shocking was that I belonged to the minority and defended basic principles against violence and racism,” says Ms Bribri

One particular Facebook account criticized for promoting violence in Sfax last week was Sayeb-Etrottoir, meaning “Clear the sidewalks.”

Just days before the attacks, the page posted material advocating that Sfax should be “saved” from the migrants.

The group’s administrator and prominent influencer, Zied Mallouli, vehemently rejects claims that the posts incite violence.

In an interview with the BBC, he said he could only speculate why people took to the streets that night.

“For them it was a matter of liberation. They think that migrants have taken their home and will settle here.”

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However, he was clear about what he thinks should happen next.

“The immediate solution is for the authorities to gather all the people in the center of Sfax and deport them and put them in a camp,” Mallouli said.

In the center of Sfax, close to a small rubbish dump, about 300 migrants have camped since they were driven from their homes.

With only cardboard to lie on and a few trees under which to find shade from the scorching sun, the stench of rotting food from the dump surrounds them.

“I spent four days here with my family because we have no other place to stay. I’m just so tired. I feel like giving up,” said Miriam, a mother of two from Sierra Leone.

She adds that she is close to looking for a loan to pay back, although it is almost impossible.

Tunisia by vehicle

Some residents of Sfax have gone out of their way to help victims of the violence

With blistering temperatures and very little shade on the street, they rely entirely on handouts from local residents.

“I saw that these people were hungry and sleeping in the open air,” says a local resident. “So with my friends we decided to make sandwiches. Yesterday we also brought water and yogurt. All free, in God’s grace.”

Another, a taxi driver, says he and his wife started caring for a mother and daughter after last week’s attacks.

“I feel sorry for the migrants and my city. So I decided to host a family. I provide them with shelter and the food my wife cooks. The Tunisian authorities should give them all legal status,” the taxi driver added.

In the current climate, the chance of that seems almost impossible.

Stuck in limbo, neither the authorities nor the migrants seem any closer to a solution – or a final destination.

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