African international students in Tunisia feared by racist violence

Thousands of sub-Saharan African students in Tunisia are still spooked by a spate of racist attacks following President Kais Syed’s comments against illegal immigration and are looking for concrete steps to protect them.

The violence erupted after Said blamed “hordes of illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” ​​for most of the crimes in Tunisia and said there was a “criminal conspiracy” to change the demographic makeup of the nation.

At the height of last month’s wave of attacks, “the feeling of fear was overwhelming,” said Christian Kwongang, president of AESAT, an association representing students from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia.

Amid what witnesses described as a “hunt for blacks”, Kwongang recalled that “we had parents in tears who called us worried about their children being arrested, and some were detained for up to two weeks.”

Kwongan said his group documented more than 20 attacks on students, “including 10 with knives,” and more than 400 arrests. For more than two weeks, he advised students to stop attending classes and go out only when absolutely necessary.

According to Cameroon’s Kwongang, at least 100 students have made emergency repatriations, mostly to Mali, Ivory Coast, Guinea and Niger.

“They left because of a wave of racism, arbitrary arrests and numerous cases of eviction” from housing, Kwongan said.

The violence subsided, and on March 6 the students returned to their classrooms. No physical attacks have been reported since March 7, but “verbal attacks” continue and international students remain on guard, Kwongang said.

“We are in the monitoring phase,” he said. “And we are waiting for concrete things – for example, the acceleration of the issuance of a residence permit.”

“Disaster for Tunisia”

The violence has been “a disaster for Tunisia,” which has always been a “hospitable place,” said Takhar Ben Lakhdar, director of the private ESPRIT university.

Said’s comments are “huge slander,” the 83-year-old said, stressing that they are also completely unfounded because “what country doesn’t have irregular foreigners?”

Since then, some schools have introduced new protective measures, including the creation of crisis teams, bus transport, and escorting local students from sub-Saharan Africa.

Lakhdar said ESPRIT, which specializes in engineering and management courses, has 350 sub-Saharan Africans among its 14,000 students.

He said the university has created “a platform where every student who has a problem can report it to dedicated lawyers.”

The government of the North African country also promised to solve the problem.

Malek Kochlef, director of international coordination at the Ministry of Higher Education, said that “there were some very reprehensible attacks” but stated that “these were separate acts.”

He told AFP the ministry has responded by setting up liaison teams and contact points at every educational institution to report any incidents.

The authorities have also begun to streamline the issuance of residence permits and have promised to set up an agency to admit foreign students, Kochlef added.

Long “Eldorado”

Violence could hurt the private education sector in Tunisia, a small Mediterranean country ravaged by an economic crisis and deep political divisions after Said ousted the government in 2021 and assumed sweeping powers.

Sub-Saharan African students make up the “overwhelming majority” of international students in the private education sector and a “significant proportion” in public institutions, Kochlef said.

The number of international students in Tunisia, mostly from other African countries, rose to 9,000 last year, five times more than in 2011.

Kwongang said at last count there were 8,200 sub-Saharan African students enrolled in universities and technical colleges in Tunisia in 2021.

Ivorian student Paul André Moa said that Tunisia has long been considered “Eldorado, a hospitable country with an excellent education system”.

It attracts international students with favorable annual tuition fees starting at 3,000 euros (about $3,200), a much lower cost of living, and less stringent visa requirements than in Europe.

But Kwongan said that after the student reassurance measures were announced, AESAT members were now waiting to see what practical effect they would have.

He said students continue to face scrutiny from authorities and the police, who “one day ask for one document, the next day for another.”

Kwongan expressed “great concern” that enrollments will fall as many international students now look to continue their studies “somewhere else, in Europe or Canada” and said he believes Tunisia’s reputation has been “severely damaged” .