Tunisia and the migration of sub-Saharan Africans: Multiple Roles Far from Europe’s exaggerations, this article draws a general view on the issue of the sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia. The fates of those who came to study or work in a regular manner, and of the “others”, whether they cross to Europe or decide to stay in the country.

, by   Mohamed Rami Abdelmoula , Assafir Al-Arabi

Johnny Semaan - Syria

“Ifriqiya” is the old name for the South of Tunisia and a part of Algeria, from which the “dark continent” derived its appellation. Historical ties connect Tunisia and North Africa with the countries and communities of the sub-Saharan region. Those ties are economic (commercial convoys and slavery), religious (the Islamic Call (Da’wah) and the Sufi currents) and historic (the European colonialism).

Despite the fact that most of the African people suffer from similar problems (the consequences of colonialism, corruption, impoverishment, unemployment and the suppression of freedoms), despite the solidarity that used to exist between the different African national liberation movements, and even though the hemorrhaging phenomenon of migration affects every country in Africa, the Tunisian people still have a superiority complex towards the sub-Saharans. Many harbor an “exotic” image that reeks stereotypes: “Les Africains”, as they are usually referred to in French by many Tunisians, practice dark magic, dance a lot, like civil wars, have epidemic diseases and famines.

These relationships started to change in the wake of the twenty first century when the number of sub-Saharan migrants began to increase. Many of them come to study or seek employment while others consider Tunisia to be a transit country on their migration route towards the Northern shores of the Mediterranean.

Many factors contributed to the evolution of this movement, some of them related to Tunisia, others to the economic and security conditions of West Africa and to the rising of the “Fortress Europe”. According to official figures (the General Population and Housing Census), the number of Africans (excluding those from North African and Arab countries) in Tunisia attains 7524 persons: the citizens from Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Mali and Senegal emerge as the top five among them. But this number is not precise, as it only considers those who carry a legal residence permit issued by the Ministry of Interior and ignores the thousands who reside in Tunisia in an illegal manner because of the difficulty they face to regularize their status.

I. Tunisia as a hosting country or an “intermediate solution”

Despite the economic conditions and the increased unemployment, the situation in Tunisia is still better than in many other African countries where conflicts and civil wars are devastating human lives. The relatively evolved infrastructures in Tunisia, the economic fabric and the educational institutions prompt many Africans to choose it as a destination for education and work, especially given the inward-looking policies adopted by the European Union.

The student migration: welcome, however…

Tunisia started opening the doors of its universities in 1968. Up until the mid-nineties of the last century, the number of migrant students only reached a few hundred - coming from the Maghreb and, to a lesser extent, from the Orient and the sub-Saharan countries. Most of them benefited from scholarships provided either by the governments of their countries or by the Tunisian state within the framework of bilateral cooperation agreements. The presence of these foreign students started to gain new features since the late 1990s and the beginning of the third millennium. With the apparition of private universities, the number of foreign students increased and reached thousands, with the vast majority coming from sub-Saharan countries.

Most of the foreign students in Tunisia come from the countries of Sahel and West Africa in general, firstly by virtue of the geographical proximity of this region with the Maghreb and, secondly, because the citizens of those countries are exempted from entry-visa requirements to Tunisia and allowed to remain in the country for 90 days without needing any residence permits. Even those who come from countries that do not have a bilateral cooperation agreement with Tunisia can easily obtain a visa as soon as they present a proof of their enrolment in a Tunisian university. The fact that some private Tunisian universities offer programs in French has contributed in attracting the francophone among the Africans while other universities teach in English to attract the English-speaking among them.

However, there are many other pull factors to consider:

- the security and stability (especially before the revolution of 2011) and the relatively evolved infrastructures in the capital Tunis and in other major cities such as Sfax and Soussea where the private universities are mainly concentrated.
- the diverse range of disciplines offered by these universities which provides the students with a large margin of choice.
- the development of higher education in Tunisia and the international recognition of the Tunisian university diplomas.
- the flexible criteria of acceptance into Tunisian universities compared to the European ones.
- the low costs of living in Tunisia compared to European countries.

The number of students coming from the sub-Saharan countries reached 12 thousand in 2010 and the Tunisian universities are willing to receive more. Many of those institutions send delegations to African countries in order to promote their courses and diplomas. Most students are males even though the number of females is significantly and rapidly increasing. The universities offer various disciplines and diplomas (license – equivalent of a BA, Magister – MA), but there is a particular focus on the sectors of Electronics, Media, Economy, Administration and Architecture.

Even at the official level, there is a desire to attract an increased the number of African students into Tunisian Universities. Months ago, the Tunisian Foreign Minister stated that the country ambitioned to welcome 20 thousand students by 2020. This wish seems unrealistic given that the number of these students has been steadily decreasing for the past 5 years (6000 students in 2017 according to the Student Assembly) for many reasons: the political and security unrests that accompanied and followed the fall of the Ben Ali regime had a significant role in this decline, the competition among the Moroccan universities which had become fiercer especially given the country’s stability and the facilitations in obtaining residence permits. Though, the main reasons for this decreasing number are the Tunisian migration policies and racism.

The racist acts perpetrated against those students are multiple, starting with verbal abuse and mockery, but spiraling out of control in the past years, both in terms of numbers and nature. A violent racism has emerged and has dangerously escalated from throwing stones and eggs to attacks with knives, attempted murders (as in the case of some Congolese students), sexual harassments and rape attempts. Those assaults may happen for a reason or without any. For example, the defeat of the National team in sports against a Sub-Saharan team can result in a wave of racist attacks against the migrants, and this was exactly what happened on the 31st of January 2015 after the Tunisian team lost to Equatorial Guinea in a football match, thus withdrawing from the Africa Cup of Nations.

After the opening of private universities, there are 12 thousand sub-Saharan students in Tunisia. At the official level, there is an ambition to increase the number of registered African students in the Tunisian universities to 20 thousand by 2020. But this wish is hampered by a growing racism, increasingly complex administrative requirements and the unrest in Tunisia itself.

The African students started to protest against those racist practices after the revolution. On one side, there is a climate of freedom that allows for expression, organization and action, and on another front, the aggressions have continued to increase. Moreover, part of the dark-skinned Tunisians and the defenders of minorities’ rights have launched campaigns to raise the issue of racial discrimination which was, until recent years, a forbidden subject that remained outside media coverage. The “African Students and Trainees Association” has mobilized, together with Tunisian organizations, a number of demonstrations and actions, last of which were a protest in March 2018 and a demonstration in May 2018.

If the students succeed to escape the racist practices, or somehow manage to “cope” with them, they would still find themselves facing other difficulties that would inevitably make their stay in Tunisia complicated… and their leaving iteven more so!

The problems start right after the arrival in Tunisia. To get a residence permit, the student has to present a university enrolment certificate, a paper proving their diligent attendance to classes, a residential lease and a certificate of financial status. Even when students manage to present all the needed documents in time, they might receive their residence permits only a few weeks prior to the end of the academic year, knowing that its validity only spans over a year and that they will therefore have to renew it at the beginning of the following academic year.

Renewing the residence permit is costly (150 Tunisian Dinars upon application before the end of its validity and double that sum after the expiration of the previous permit) and exhausting for the foreign students, who are demanding an extension of its validity from one year to two in order to save time and money. For every week of irregular stay in Tunisia, the student is fined 20 Tunisian Dinars at the departure from the country. If the student fails to pay, he would be detained at the airport. The increasingly high cost of studying, the accumulation of irregular residence fines and other problems that the students might face (such as the disturbances in their countries of origin, the interruption of their grants or of their families’ remittances)force many of them to work in the informal economy sectors.

Labor migration:poor people elbowing poor people?

Talking about a migration of workers and professionals to Tunisia might sound comical or even surreal to most of the Tunisians. Indeed, the country is going through a chronic crisis of unemployment and thousands of its young (and even elderly!) people of both genders, wait in line in front of the embassies of European and Gulf countries, hoping to receive a visa. Others embark on the “death boats” and sail the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of the opposite shores.

According to the official figures of 2015 (from the Ministry of Vocational Advancement and Employment), the number of foreigners working in Tunisia is estimated at approximately 8000 persons, mostly Europeans (French and Italians), Moroccans and other Arab nationalities. The number of African workers doesn’t exceed 2000, mostly coming from Senegal and Cameroon.

It is impossible to measure the true extent of the African employment in Tunisia. A great number of migrant workers lives in the country without any residence permits, for either a short or a long period of time, and works in the different sectors of the informal economy. Others, such as the students for example, bear residence permits which do not allow them to work officially and also resort to the informal economy to improve their living conditions.

The fraudulent recruitments of women migrant workers have similarities, which suggests the existence of national / international networks. In the beginning, the women are offered a decently paid job in Tunisia. As soon as they arrive, they are taken to the wealthy homes where they will work in domestic service. Their passports are retained to ensure that they won’t run away and to force them to work for free as the facilitator has already received the installments of the first six months, without them knowing.

Only a limited number of Africans manage to obtain legal work contracts in Tunisian factories and institutions and therefore benefit from the rights guaranteed by the Tunisian Employment Act and hold a regular residence permit. It is very rare to find African investors, business or workshop owners in Tunisia. The vast majority of them works in the sectors of the informal economy. The men work on construction sites, in agriculture, factories and craft workshops. As for the women, they usually work as domestic servants in wealthy households, as cleaning ladies for companies or as assistants in beauty salons or restaurants.

The protectionist work and residence laws in Tunisia impose several conditions on the migrants seeking employment. Things are even more complicated for the poorest and least qualified among them who come mostly from the sub-Saharan African countries.

Besides the obligation of having a contract certified by the Ministry of Vocational Advancement and Employment, the migrant workers cannot search for another job during the first contractual period, neither can they work outside of the province where the institution mentioned in the contract is located. It is true that the official departments often overlook some of the conditions or grant exceptions for the migrant workers coming from specific countries (mostly France and Maghreb countries), but many legal provisions allow these administrations to either adopt selective policies or close the job market completely in front of foreigner workers.


Only a limited number of Africans manage to obtain legal work contracts in Tunisian factories and institutions and therefore benefit from the rights guaranteed by the Tunisian Employment Act and hold a regular residence permit. It is very rare to find African investors, business or workshop owners in Tunisia. The vast majority of them works in the sectors of the informal economy.

The active players in Tunisia have different standpoints towards economic migration. The human rights organizations defend it from the standpoint of the freedom of movement and work. The authorities exaggerate the issue and tend to discourage it to avoid any possible subsequent problems. The trade unions, however, have conflicting attitudes: while the employers welcome this migration and call for more flexibility in handling it, the workers’ unions are less enthusiastic as migrant workers usually accept lower wages and tolerate harsh working conditions.

The Tunisian laws on migration and foreign employment are being more strictly enforced, especially for non-European and non-Maghrebi migrants. In most cases, this leads to disastrous consequences. For some of the African migrants, the doors close on all prospects of a decent work and on the possibility of ever obtaining residence permits in Tunisia, while, at the same time, they cannot or do not want to return to their countries of origin. Therefore, some of them consider irregular migration to Europe, thus risking their lives or falling victims of organized human trafficking networks.

Local and foreign media have uncovered numerous cases of exploitation of African women employed as domestic workers in Tunisia, to the extent that their treatment can nearly be considered as human trafficking or slavery. Most of the women who are vulnerable to these conditions come from the Ivory Coast or Senegal. The different cases have many similarities which suggest the existence of national and international organized networks.

First, an African intermediate lures those women in their countries of origin (many of them hold advanced degrees), and promises them a decently paid job in Tunisia, which they accept because of financial or security reasons. Upon arriving at the Airport of Carthage, they are transported to the villas of wealthy families where they would work in domestic services or as baby-sitters. Upon their arrival, their new employers confiscate their passports to guarantee that they would not run away and to force them to work for months without payment, as the intermediate has already received the installment of their first six months of labor without their knowledge. The phone number of the intermediate will of course stop functioning at this point, and the victim will not find any kind of support in her new situation. Those women receive an inhuman treatment and are forbidden from going out for long periods of time. When the phase of “forced labor” is over, they are offered to continue working for a meagre monthly allowance. Most of them accept this offer for many reasons: the need for money, the difficulty to get legal residence permits, the impossibility to pay the fine of an irregular stay, the ignorance of their working rights, the lack of trust in the authorities and the fear of complaining to the police who might arrest them on insufficient grounds.

II – The road to Rome passes through Carthage: Tunisia as a transit country.

Tunisia plays almost every “migratory role”:it is a country that exports and receives migrants and it has also been, for the past two decades, a transit station for thousands of Africans coming from the sub-Saharan countries and planning on embarking on the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of the “European heaven”.

The phenomenon that began at the end of the twentieth century evolved in the beginning of the new millennium and its magnitude increased grandly with the uprisings of the “Arab Spring” and the tightening of the European immigration policies.

Why do they choose Tunisia?

It is necessary to clarify an important point: most of the time, the African migrants do not have a clear and definitive “road map”. Many of them come from villages and towns in West Africa, and their first objective is to cross the Sahara and then to enter into the countries of the Maghreb. After that, they decide their next steps depending on chance and circumstances. Their journeys last for months, sometimes years and their trajectories might repeatedly alter. Some migrants might choose to stay in Tunisia because they happened to meet with a Tunisian facilitator in Libya or in Algeria, or stay by necessity like when the war broke out in Libya in 2011. Of course, things don’t always happen by chance and many factors make Tunisia a transit country in the migratory movement from Africa to Europe.

- The easy access to Tunisia: There are almost a hundred countries whose citizens are exempted from visas to enter Tunisia and can stay in the country for a maximum period of 3 months. More than twenty African countries (including the countries of the Maghreb) are on this list: Ivory Coast, Senegal, Gambia, Gambon, Mali, Niger, the Comoros, Cape Verde, Seychelles, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Namibia, South Africa, Guinea, Central Africa. This means that migrants aspiring to reach Europe can access the penultimate stage (Tunisia) within hours, which buys them time and allows them to avoid the dangers of the desert land route.

- Multiple small ports: the long Tunisian coastline and its proximity to the European shores and especially the Italian ones. The island of Lampedusa for example, is less than 150 miles away from the Southern, central and Eastern Tunisians shores (Medenine, Sfax, Mahdia and Monastir) and the island of Pantelleria is 50 miles close to the Tunisian South-Eastern shores (Nabeul governorate). This proximity means faster access and lower risks, especially that the means of transportation usually involved are unsafe and not made for long-distance travels.

- The rigidity of the European Union’s migration policies and the many agreements / deals it has passed with governments of countries of the Maghreb to ensure that they control their borders more tightly and address the African migration flows “properly”. In the beginning of the third millennium, Europe and its Mediterranean “allies” started to close all the maritime roads to which the smugglers and irregular migrants had resorted: The Strait of Gibraltar between Morocco and Spain, the Atlas road which binds West Africa with the Canary Islands, the Libya-to-Italy road, etc. The boat owners have therefore looked for alternatives. One of their options was the Tunisian-Italian route which was, until the late nineties of the previous century, mostly used by the Tunisian and Moroccan border-burners (Harragas).

- The increased number of African residents in Tunisia since 2003, after the relocation of the central headquarters of the “African Development Bank” from Abidjan to Tunis (as a consequence of the highly volatile environment in Ivory Coast since 2002) and the influx of thousands of students to the Tunisian private universities. These factors have contributed in favoring a “nurturing environment” for the migrants in transit.

Most of the time, the African migrants do not have a clear and definitive “road map”. Many of them come from villages and towns in West Africa, their first objective is to cross the Sahara and then to enter the countries of the Maghreb. After that, they decide their next stepsdepending on chance and circumstances. Their journeys last for months and sometimes for years.

All those pull factors don’t mean that Tunisia is a golden destination:
1- Border-burning costs most in Tunisia compared to other countries of the Maghreb. It costs one to two thousand dollars depending on the season, the number of migrants and the state of the boat used, while the price in Libya, for instance, does not exceed one thousand dollars.
2- Tunisia is going through a harsh economic crisis resulting in higher prices of consumer goods, services and rents.
3- The emergence of terrorist organizations in Tunisia has provoked a security unrest in Libya, the Sahel regions and the sub-Saharan regions and put the security services on alert in the border areas and cities (raids and verification of identity and permit papers).
4- Of course, one cannot forget the pressure exerted by Europe on Tunisia to address migration which translates into stricter domestic laws and an enforcement of the security services patrols.

How do they come and where from?

They mostly come from the Sahel countries and West Africa. Many of them fly to Tunisia. A lesser number arrives through land border crossings and especially through the Tunisian-Libyan border (the Ra’s Ajdir crossing point, the Medenine governorate in the South West of the country) and, on rare occasions, through the Tunisian – Algerian border in the West of the country.
Despite the exaggerations of the European Union, and Italy in particular, the number of irregular migrants who reach its shores departing from the Tunisian coastline remains limited if we exclude the year 2011 which witnessed the arrival of more than 25 thousand Tunisian border-burners and thousands of foreigners to Europe. The approximate number does not exceed a few thousands a year (between 4 and 8) which only represents 5% of the overall number of migrants arriving to Italy.

Libya remains the main route from which almost 90% of immigrants depart. There are Tunisians who take to the sea from Libya (just like citizens of other transit countries such as Libya and Morocco depart from Tunisia). Like other Africans, they take advantage of the security chaos and the better prices.

During the year 2017 for example, almost 10 thousand persons attempted to embark on boats to Italy. 6151 of them arrived to the European shores and 3178 were arrested by the Tunisian security forces. No information is available on the number of non-Tunisian Africans among them or their nationalities. Though, according to the figures published in the report of “the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights”, among the 3178 who were arrested, 271 were foreigners and most of those (78%) were sub-Saharan Africans coming mostly from Nigeria (72 migrants) and Ivory Coast (50 migrants). The Tunisian Institute for Strategic and Development Studies confirms the limited incidence of the phenomenon of transit through Tunisia: the percentage of foreigners among the migrants who departed from Tunisia did not exceed 9% in 2016 and 12% in 2017. Of course, some of the migrants are overlooked by the Italian security forces but the number of those does not exceed a few hundred or a few thousand.

Despite the exaggerations of the European Union, and Italy in particular, the number of irregular migrants who reach its shores departing from the Tunisian coastline remains limited if we exclude the year 2011. It does not exceed a few thousands a year (between 4 and 8) which only represents 5% of the overall number of migrants arriving to Italy.

The studies and reports which address the phenomenon have managed to draw an approximate “portrait” of the African migrant who crosses from Tunisia to Italy: most of the time, he is a single man (even though the number of women has increased, especially those originating from the Ivory Coast), coming from one of the countries of West Africa, aged between 20 and 40 years.
What do they do as they wait for the “big day”?

The number of migrants in Tunisia, and especially the Africans among them, is so small that it doesn’t enable to draw a clear pattern of the method they use to manage their stay in the country.

Some of them arrive to Tunisia after having made contact with an intermediate who arranges things in advance with a smuggler, so that their stay in the country doesn’t exceed a few days or weeks before they embark on a boat. In these cases, the migrants are hidden in a residence or a place close to the seashore from where the boat will depart and, during this time, they are prevented from communicating with the outside world.

Others come to Tunisia without having communicated with anyone in advance. They rely on finding an easy “burning plan” (an irregular migration plan). While looking for this “lead”, they reside at the houses of their relatives or friends who are studying or working in Tunisia. Those who seek to immigrate either head to the capital where the greater number of Africans live or go directly to the coastal cities known for being bases for border-burners and smugglers (Sfax, Mahdia, Monastir, Nabeul, Zarzis). They live in the popular neighborhoods and in the poverty belts surrounding big cities where rent is lower and where they are close to all kinds of job opportunities: construction sites, commerce, coffeehouses and restaurants.

A few arrive to Tunisia possessing the required amount of money to embark on a migration boat, so many are forced to work in the sectors of informal economy to gather the sum. These workers are exploited by their employers but remain silent to avoid drawing any attention to them.

There had been recurrent drowning boats incidents, the last of which happened in the Kerkennah province on the 3rd of June 2018 where 81 victims died, 20 of whom were originally from sub-Saharan countries. Therefore, some of the migrants have decided to renounce burning the borders and to establish themselves in Tunisia.

The lucky ones arrive safely to the Italian islands but hundreds are arrested by security forces, either on land or in the middle of the sea. Most of them are without legal residence permits which means that they have committed several legal violations. They are detained in undeclared prisons, dubbed “reception and orientation centers” (the most famous of them is the “Al Wardiyaeh” Center, in the South of the Tunisian capital), pending deportation. The state does not support the cost of the expulsion to the country of origin, which means that the migrants, who are almost always out of money, are not allowed to leave the detention center until they are able to afford a plane ticket and pay the penalty for their irregular stay in the country (20 Tunisian Dinars for each week of irregularity).

In some cases, the Tunisian authorities get rid of the detained migrants by abandoning them in border villages near Libya or Algeria. The authorities deny resorting to those practices but many reports and testimonies confirm this.

In Conclusion

There is no typical “portrait” of the sub-Saharan African migrant. The situations are multiple and might change repeatedly for the same person during their stay in Tunisia. Contrary to the belief of most of Tunisians and foreign beholders, most of the migrants who arrive to Tunisia seek to reside there for an extended period of time (for studying, work, asylum, medical treatment, investment) and do not necessarily plan to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

The Tunisian Parliament has passed, in the recent years, several progressive laws intended to protect the Tunisian and African migrants. For example, on the 3rd of August 2016, the law on “counteracting the trafficking of people” was approved and the “national anti-trafficking council” was dispatched in 2017. On the 6th of June 2018, the “Rights and Freedoms Committee” has also approved a draft law on the “Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination”. Tunisia has also been signing, with other African countries, bilateral conventions which include the facilitation of citizens’ movements and economic cooperation.

All that is good, but it might lose its meaning in the face of all the public and secret agreements that the Tunisian governments sign with member countries of the European Union to counter the phenomenon of irregular migration of both Tunisians and Africans coming from the sub-Saharan countries.

Translated from Arabic by Fourate Chahal Rekaby
Published in Assafir Al-Arabi on 23/07/2018

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