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  • Writer's pictureRory O'Keeffe, Koraki

Tunisia and the human race: the time to respond

What is happening in Tunisia right now – and the response to it from some of Europe’s leading politicians – is our responsibility. Even if only because there is no-one else. It is time to stand up, step forward and make a difference.

At least 29 people have been killed in shipwrecks off the Tunisian coast in three disasters in the last two days.

The incidents took place on Saturday and Sunday morning (25-26 March 2023) off the coast of Mahdia. It is thought at least two of the boats set out from Sfax.

In the first, 19 people were killed, and in the second, on Saturday afternoon, a further ten people have been confirmed dead, while five people were rescued. It is far from clear even how many people were aboard the last boat.

In the previous four days, at least 67 people have gone missing, while the Tunisian national guard says it has prevented more than 3,000 people leaving Tunisia in the last five days, and had detained them.

It is illegal to prevent people fleeing to seek asylum.

The Italian Coastguard claims more than 2,000 people had arrived from Tunisia to Lampedusa in the 24 hours of Saturday 25 March, a number described as ‘a record’ because journalists can sometimes be lazy.

Italy’s fascist Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni claimed that:

The IMF must help Tunisia become economically-stable, or we will see a huge wave of migrants on Europe’s shores.

And the increasingly awful Manfred Weber, leader of the right-wing European People’s Party, said:

EU countries are still acting as if the influx of migrants doesn't concern them. It is time that everyone moves. The most important thing is secure EU external borders.

To take Meloni’s ‘response’ first.

Giorgia Meloni is perfectly well-aware that the reason people are fleeing Tunisia at present is not because its economy is failing (although it absolutely is, and we shall come back to that) but that Tunisia’s ‘president’ Kais Saied, a dictator who has since 21 July 2021 dissolved the Tunisian parliament, supreme judicial council and electoral commission, as well as firing 57 judges who disagreed with him and has been ruling for 21 months by presidential decree, declared on Tuesday 21 February this year that there was a conspiracy to ‘change Tunisia’s demographic composition’, that ‘sub-Saharans have brought violent crime to Tunisia’ and that ‘sub-Saharan Africans are behind a crime-wave’ in Tunisia.

We should note first of all that Saied did not mention who might be behind this ‘conspiracy’, and that in fact there has been no ‘crime-wave’ in Tunisia, caused by sub-Saharan Africans or anyone else.

Meloni knows perfectly well that – although there certainly have been shortages in Tunisia caused by a combination of Saied’s incompetent handling of the Tunisian economy, lower than expected rainfall, the Russian invasion of Ukraine (because Tunisia imports grain from both states and cannot meet its own needs without it) and the global inflation crisis (shortages include petrol, cooking oil, diesel, sugar, bottled water, flour (and everything made from it) coffee, fruit and vegetables) – Saied’s rhetoric and the entirely predictable wave of ethnic cleansing which followed (people with darker than the Tunisian average skin-tone have been fired from their jobs, kicked out of their homes, robbed, in some cases beaten badly and close to 1,000 have now been arrested having committed no crime) has led to people’s desperation to escape.

Some people who have been ‘lucky’ enough have escaped in aircraft: countries including Senegal, Ivory Coast, Mali and Guinea have all been forced to operate emergency flights to help their citizens flee. Those who have not, are attempting to board boats.

(We might note that sub-Saharan Africans are far from the only people at risk in Saied’s increasingly bitter and desperate Tunisian dystopia. The ‘president’ has also been systematically arresting anyone of any profile who has disagreed with him in the last two years. Tunisia is an awful country to be in at the moment: it is spiralling into vicious, racist dictatorship before our eyes.)

She also knows that the reason the IMF (and indeed the World Bank) which had both been in negotiations regarding loans and other economic assistance for Tunisia, are not any longer, is precisely that Saied made this speech and sparked an ethnic cleansing campaign in Tunisia.

(We would also like to note here that, if it is not already clear, we do not believe a loan or any other assistance from the IMF or World Bank is very likely to solve Tunisia’s economic problems, and certainly not its socio-political ones: the removal of Saied from the lives of everyone in Tunisia is the only way that can happen)

She knows all of this not just because the IMF and World Bank announced their part in it on Thursday 9 March, but also because she heads a fascist coalition, containing the Italian politicians most angered by and desperate to stop, people arriving in Italy in search of safe places to live, learn and work, and because Tunisia is one of the major ‘stepping-off’ points to reach Italy from the south.

She knows it because this – Tunisian-‘origin’ people-movement – is a specialism of her and her government, and one they are using to drive fear and anger among Italian men, women and children. Her government will survive or fall on whether it reduces the level of that movement.

She knows it because her political career is staked upon it, and because she may be genuine in her hatred and fear of people darker than her and her friends daring to reach Italy.

And she knows it for another reason.

She knows it because in the week before Saied made his racist and paranoid speech – a speech out of character to that point: Saied had always been power-hungry and increasingly dictatorial, but he had to that point not actually said anything openly racist – and sparked ethnic cleansing in Tunisia, a delegation from her fascist government had been in Tunisia meeting him to discuss how to prevent people leaving Tunisia and travelling to Italy.

We stated at the time that it seemed likely that the fascist delegation had promised Italian, or perhaps EU, cash, in exchange for this illegal ‘service’. It now seems increasingly clear that she and her government also offered to ‘help’ push the IMF and World Bank into granting the country and Saied extra cash.

It may well be that Meloni herself – or even her representatives – did not call specifically for Saied to denounce all foreigners and ethnically-cleanse them. But it is far too great a coincidence that his first public deranged racist rant was made immediately after a delegation from a fascist government determined to keep foreign people from reaching its shores.

And so to Weber’s comment.

In some ways, what Weber is saying here is worse. Because he too knows absolutely everything Meloni knows about Tunisia (and if he does not, he should not be presuming to comment on it).

But unlike Meloni, his political career does not depend on making sure black African people are beaten or starved to death instead of seeking safety – which is their absolute right.

And unlike Meloni he does not even have the decency to pretend to care about Tunisia’s economic situation.

Instead, he says: ‘secure EU’s external borders.’

First of all, this is of course illegal. One cannot deny people the right to flee persecution and prevent them from applying for safety in another country. Manfred Weber, the leader of a political group in the EU Parliament, absolutely knows that. He is demanding that the EU break the law.

Second, the reason the law says that people are allowed to travel wherever they choose, to apply for asylum, and that countries must allow them to enter if this is what they wish to do, is that the alternative is that they be left to suffer – and in many many cases die – at the hands of powerful people who either do not care whether they live, or absolutely do care and wish to prevent them from doing so.

That is, not only is Manfred Weber, the leader of an EU political group, calling for the EU to break the law, he is also calling for the EU to make sure people cannot escape death.

He is calling for the EU to act to end the lives of innocent people.

We realise that perhaps not very many people read what we produce. We are working on it.

And we realise that those who do, may not always take it very seriously.

But here, we are at the heart of what is supposed to matter to us all.

We are seeing the destruction of a country, and the harrying and persecution of a large number of the people within it, happening before our eyes.

And we are seeing leading European politicians call for those people to be prevented from escaping. To be persecuted. To be killed.

Whether we speak and act as humanitarians, or simply as human beings, and however many times we have done so before, we must speak and act now.

Speak, to call for an end to ‘secure our borders’ as a response to people needing safe places to be, and act, to ensure that those who need our assistance at this horrifying moment in their lives, receive it.

We should do it because it is our job, because we are human beings, and because we are able to.

The alternative is not just a Tunisian catastrophe, but the same disaster all over the world, over and over again, until we finally step forward.


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