North Africa continues to struggle with racism. Are laws enough to turn the tide?
Tunisia’s newly passed anti-racism law marks a historic advance in the MENA region while its two North African neighbours lag behind on a mostly unspoken issue.
Tunisia's parliament confirmed a law criminalising racial discrimination adopted on October 9, in a historic move for the country’s black minority rights.
Under this new legislation, offenders can be jailed for one month and fined $350 for racist language, while those guilty of inciting hatred, making racist threats, spreading and advocating racism or supporting a racist organisation can face one to three years in prison and fines of up to $1,050.
With this first-of-its-kind law in the Arab world, Tunisia again proved itself a pioneer in human rights throughout the region.
It was the first Arab and Muslim country to abolish slavery in 1846.
“Tunisia has today acknowledged officially that a disease [racism] exists and something must be done,” commented Saadia Mosbah, head of Mnemty My Dream, an anti-racism organisation that advocated extensively for the legislation.
“The law is a first milestone in the fight against racial discrimination.”
The groundbreaking step should reflect shifting attitudes toward a largely taboo subject, yet real progress must be seen at the societal level in order to match what is, for now, only legislation.
“In Tunisia laws are passed more quickly than what it takes to change the mentality as well as the historical and cultural heritage,” said Maha Abdelhamid, co-founder of the Association for Equality and Development (ADAM), the first group for the rights of black people established in Tunisia.
“We stay vigilant and make sure the law will be applied,” she added.
Although no official data based on skin colour exist, estimates say Tunisia’s black minority account for 10-15 percent of the population, and there are between 6,000 and 6,500 African students currently living in the country.
Will society adapt to the new law?
Discrimination against black people remains a deep-rooted issue throughout Tunisia. Some towns in the south of Tunisia even have separate school buses for black children.
Tunisians of darker skin and other black Africans are often subjected to racial slurs like “kahlouch” and “wassif”–pejorative terms to identify a black person-and face social stigma, discrimination and even violence. Those who complain of racial abuse to the police typically find no law to protect them.
“In the future when a black person in Tunisia is discriminated against or harassed, will he be able to make a complaint? Will the authorities listen to him?” questioned the ADAM veteran who has a focused interest on Tunisian blacks.
Activists denounce the fact that black Tunisians are also under-represented in public life, citing the absence of black politicians, businessmen or celebrities as another sign of latent racism.
In spite of this, many Tunisians would claim they have no problem with black people, which implicitly dismisses the de facto pervasive prejudice that people have long carried as a result of the country’s history of slavery.
Back in 2014, Mosbah led a caravan across southern Tunisia, trying to generate a national debate about racial discrimination and legacies of slavery.
To date, the denial of racism is common in society up to to the highest levels of government. Ahead of the vote, one parliamentary member, Faycel Tebini, reportedly denied the existence of racial discrimination in Tunisia.
Mnemty’s director remarked with disdain that other MPs did not just deny the presence of racism as a problem, but inferred it was an issue brought up by Europe to interfere in Tunisia’s affairs.
She brought up the weak turnout of parliamentarians voting on the anti-racism law, saying that only 127 out of the total 217 MPs in the Tunisian Parliament came to vote.
“The law was voted by the majority of those present with 40 percent of the parliamentarians absent. Those who turned up were much fewer than we hoped,” stated the prominent anti-racist activist, noting that the disappointing participation is a real indicator of Tunisia’s mix of stances on the issue.
Arab Spring effect
Since the 2011 revolution, civil society groups have pressured the government to pass anti-discrimination legislation geared at protecting racial minorities, particularly black Tunisians and sub-Saharan Africans. The law's draft emerged following a series of racially motivated aggressions in recent years.
One highly publicised case accelerated the process of drafting and discussion of the law.
In 2016, a Tunisian girl, Sabrina, was verbally abused on the main Habib Bourguiba Avenue in downtown Tunis and turned away when she reported the incident to the police due to “the lack of a specific law” against racism.
In December of the same year, three black African students were stabbed at a train station in Tunis. Amid protests in reaction to the assault, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed urged parliament to ratify the draft law criminalising racial discrimination.
That said, the road to implementing the law and ensuring equality in the public sphere is lengthy.
Yet, Tunisia has become the first Arab country to outlaw racial discrimination, which may inspire other countries in the region to take a serious stand on discrimination against racial minorities too.
In North Africa, there have been previous calls for national legislation against racial discrimination in recent years.
Regional ripple effect
March 2016 saw the launch of the first trans-Maghrebi campaign against racism under the banner “Neither Slave, Nor Negro, Stop That's Enough”. A collective of associations and activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania joined hands to demand the adoption of laws criminalising all forms of racial discrimination “in the Maghrebi space between nationals but especially towards refugees and migrants from sub-Saharan Africa,” as quoted on the campaign press release.
Through pressure from civil society activists, Morocco has made advances mostly in developing a policy to deal with sub-Saharan migration amid multiple discussions on recognition of the rights of migrants and their integration.
Making a comparison, Abdelhamid noted how Tunisia has not progressed much in terms of its immigration bureaucracy, leaving many refugees and migrants in Tunisian territory in a legal quagmire for long periods.
“Moroccans are doing the real frontline work that should be done everywhere, starting with changing mentalities first,” said Mosbah.
Between 2013 and 2018, two political parties – the Istiqlal, and the Authenticity and Modernity Party – have proposed legislation aimed at penalising racial discrimination to no avail.
Though there is no anti-racism law in the country, King Mohammed VI announced in 2013 that Morocco had become a welcoming destination for migrants, respecting their human rights and humanitarian needs.
In 2014 and 2016, the Kingdom regularised the status of 50,000 undocumented migrants.
According to official estimates, about 100,000 sub-Saharan African migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers live in Morocco.
Rights activists in Morocco have regularly denounced incidents of racially driven attacks, both verbal and physical, throughout the media and social media.
In Algeria, racism can be found in intolerance toward sub-Saharan Africans. Public discussion on the subject is largely absent and Algerian authorities are unwilling to address the problem.
While Algeria ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, it does not have a specific national law criminalising racism.
“We need a law that clearly defines racial discrimination and applies to everyone, including migrants,” affirmed Said Salhi, vice-deputy of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights (LADDH)
“But the major problem is that this country still lacks national asylum legislation, which could put the dignity of migrants in danger,” he continued, referring to the waves of collective forced expulsions carried out by Algeria marked by abuse and in violation of international human rights law.
About two weeks ago, the government rebuffed a UN statement accusing Algeria of collectively expelling thousands of African migrants across its southern border with Niger.
According to IOM estimates, around 35,600 Nigerian migrants have been expelled from Algeria to Niger since 2014, more than 12,000 since the start of the year. In addition, an estimated 8,000 West African migrants at least have been expelled to Niger since 2017.
The UN special rapporteur on migration criticised the expulsion conditions as “unacceptable” saying that migrants are raided in their homes in the middle of the night, arbitrarily arrested and detained, beaten and ill-treated, deported in trucks toward the border, and obliged to walk through the desert to reach the nearest village in Niger.
The IOM has repeatedly slammed the mistreatment of African migrants by the Algerian government, namely its massive deportation operations.
Back in June, a report by the Associated Press alleged that Algerian authorities had "abandoned" more than 13,000 people in the Sahara Desert.
The presence of sub-Saharan nationals in Algeria has strongly divided society as well as the political class.
In the summer of 2017, a hateful campaign against sub-Saharan migrants went viral on social media under the hashtag “No to Africans in Algeria.”
Amnesty International (AI) Algeria condemned the racist campaign. Online users took to social media to attack the hashtag and the racism of certain users.
Racist remarks were also made at a governmental level, In the local press, Ahmed Ouyahia, then cabinet chief of President Bouteflika, openly accused African migrants of bringing criminality, drugs and other plagues. Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdelkader Messahel blamed migrants for posing a threat to national security.
At the core of the migrant question in Algeria is Law N. 08-11 of June 25, 2008, which grants authorities the power to expel foreigners who illegally entered Algerian territory. Amnesty Algeria previously called on the Algerian government to repeal certain sections of the Aliens Act, including those criminalising the irregular entry into, stay in and exit from Algerian territory.
“Some people brave all the prohibitions to escape from dangers and take refuge in Algeria. These laws are a further evil for the migrants and that does not regulate their situation,” said Hassina Oussedik, director of Amnesty Algeria.
Algerian civil society has mobilised to end arbitrary and summary expulsions of migrants.
Salhi cited among other initiatives one petition launched by dozens of Algerian NGOs in late May, “We are all migrants,” backed by the UN and international NGOs, demanding the government of Algiers stop its practice of mass expulsion.