African migrants allege mistreatment in North Africa

Egypt hosts more than 6 million migrants, more than half of them from Sudan and South Sudan.
Sunday 05/01/2020
Dashed dreams. African migrants are transferred to a detention centre after being detained in Zawiya in northern Libya. (Reuters)
Dashed dreams. African migrants are transferred to a detention centre after being detained in Zawiya in northern Libya. (Reuters)

TUNIS - North African countries have long been a refuge for sub-Saharan migrants trying to escape war or poverty. However, the streets of Cairo, Tunis or Tripoli can turn dangerous, with racist harassment and violence.

While Europe has been wrestling with racist violence, North African countries, with complex situations including their own illegal emigration problems, have made only small steps in addressing the issue.

For some migrants, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia are the closest and easiest countries for them to enter. For others, the countries are a point of transit before attempting the Mediterranean crossing to Europe.

The International Organisation for Migration said Egypt hosts more than 6 million migrants, more than half of them from Sudan and South Sudan, where simmering conflicts displace tens of thousands of people annually.

At least two dozen sub-Saharan Africans, including four children, in Cairo told the Associated Press they have endured racist insults, sexual harassment or other abuses in the past three months.

The children said they have had rocks and trash thrown at them as they go to or from school. One Ethiopian woman said neighbours pound on the windows of her family’s home, yelling “slaves” before disappearing.

A study last year by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights indicated that 50% of immigrant respondents from sub-Saharan African countries said their migration experience, after several years spent in Tunisia, was “a failure,” while 41% described the experience as “successful.”

Among those questioned about their medium-term goals, 54% expressed a desire to leave for Europe and 42% expressed a preference to return to their country of origin. Only 2% said they preferred to settle in Tunisia.

The study stated that 48.3% of respondents said it is necessary to review the legal status of migrants.

Respondents called on Tunisia to allow African migrants to benefit from work opportunities in the country, defend their rights, facilitate the acquirement of residence permit and revise social security laws, in a way that would simplify procedures to obtain Tunisian nationality for migrants’ children born in the country and allow foreigners to open bank accounts.

In Libya, a country plagued by corruption and caught in civil war, the picture looks gloomier for African migrants. A report by the Associated Press said millions of dollars from the European Union had been diverted to networks of militiamen, traffickers and Coast Guard members who allegedly exploit migrants. The report said UN officials knew militia networks were getting the money.

The report revealed torture, extortion and other abuse for ransom in migrant detention centres and under the nose of the United Nations, often in compounds that receive millions of dollars in aid. This was in addition to reports of disappearances from detention centres, with migrants allegedly sold to traffickers or sent to other centres.

In Libya, abuses generally go unpunished amid the chaos in the country. In Tunisia and Egypt, however, there were signs the two countries were starting to recognise and censure racist crimes.

In November, a video showing three Egyptian teenagers bullying South Sudanese schoolboy John Manuth triggered a public outcry. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi later hosted Manuth at a youth forum and made a rare high-level acknowledgement of the problem.

“They are our guests and negative treatment is not acceptable and not allowed,” Sisi said.

In 2018, a court sentenced to seven years in prison a man who was known to harass refugees and who beat to death a South Sudanese teacher who had worked in a community-run school for refugees in Cairo.

In Tunisia, the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination Act was adopted in October 2018, with penalties ranging from 1-3 months in prison for racist language and 1-3 years for inciting hatred, disseminating ideas about racial superiority or supporting a racist organisation or activity.

The law, which created a National Instance against Racial Discrimination to present an annual report to the parliament, commits the state to undertake awareness and training campaigns.

(With news agencies.)

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