The pathologization of ‘migrants’ in Tunisia and France shows how race and poverty shape our understanding of belonging.
On July 5, two Tunisian parliamentarians accused sub-Saharan African migrants of spreading tuberculosis among Tunisians. The parliamentary session was set to discuss the increasing absence of basic medication in Tunisia, an absence that a colleague working for a pharmaceutical company in Tunis attributed to the state’s inability to pay for these medications on the global market. Instead, the parliamentary discussion “turned into a free racial attacks session.” One parliamentarian claimed that “unwanted migrants” had infected at least two Tunisians in Sfax—a coastal city in the south of the country—and that “anyone among us can be next!”
Since the anti-Sub-Saharan-migrant speech made in February by Tunisian President Kais Saied, which called for the eradication of these migrants from Tunisian territory, Sfax has become the site of what the Tunisian mediadescribed as “degenerating [situation] … between the inhabitants and irregular sub-Saharan migrants.” The terms migrants, illegal, and Africans are used synonymously, not only in popular discourse but also in the state’s own discourse to produce a homogenous social imagination of young Black men with criminal intentions.
In parallel, Paris has been a site of what many friends call “social disturbances”—protests over the early months of this year against the law pushing the retirement age from 62 to 64, and, since late June, protests against the murder of 17-year-old Nahel by the police in Nanterre on the outskirts of Paris. In news coverage as well as in social media commentary, these protests are described as “emeutes” or riots, followed by images of “rioters confronting the police” in the streets, burning whatever comes on their way. Even in the absence of a demographic description of who these “rioters” are, the French readers assume immediately that behind the shadows of black-hoodied figures in these images are young Black and Arab men, the perpetual “migrants” of France, an assumption that comes from a history of discursive linking of “riots” with Arab and Black men in the peripheries of Paris.
As I scroll through my Twitter feed bringing news and commentary from and on Paris and Sfax, I am struck by the similarities in the social and political construction of “degenerating” situations in both cities, where the cause of this degeneration is explicitly or implicitly referred to racially and economically marginalized young men of immigrant origin or descent. These young men are recurrently described as social pests existing in faceless masses of “rioters” (as headlines from Paris read) or “hordes” (as the Tunisian President has called them)—devoid of morality in the sense that they “burn the LIDL [grocery store] that their mothers shop at” or “kill and eat cats,” as comments on social media read. These discourses of disorder and pathology attributed to these young “migrant” men end up socially and politically justifying the desire for “order” by state interventions of any kind.
On June 25, hundreds of Tunisians gathered in Sfax to protest against the presence of “irregular” (undocumented) sub-Saharan migrants in the city which is one of the key departure points for clandestine migrant boats heading to Italy; they called for the closing of Tunisian borders and deportation of “migrants.” Since early July, sub-Saharan migrants living in Sfax governorate have been arrested by Tunisian police in their homes. Many are being deported to Libyan and Algerian borders by the Tunisian military or border police; before dropping them in the dry no-man’s-land without water and food, the police or military confiscate these migrants’ phones and passports, hence guaranteeing their death.
Sfax, the second-largest city of Tunisia, is seen in the Tunisian popular imagination as the producer of the country’s brightest citizens; year after year, Sfax ranks the highest in the percentage of students qualifying for the high school diploma. Hence, Sfaxians are considered more deserving of state resources, including the state expulsion of those that they see as creators of social, political, or pathological disorder—les africains.
In France, order is achieved through police control of anyone considered pathological. Since the start of the June “riots,” around 3,700 people (a third of whom are minors) have been put in police detention. France also supports the use of police violence to control those seen as pathological outside its borders. For example, during his official visit to Tunisia in mid-June, Gérald Darmanin, France’s Minister of Interior, announced a bilateral aid of 25.8 million euros “to equip and train the Tunisian coast guards in the fight against migration.” The Tunisian state has interpreted Darmanin’s (and European Union’s) migration containment as referring to sub-Saharan migrants. At the same time, Tunisians continue to take the same clandestine routes as sub-Saharan migrants to enter European Union countries.
In both Tunisia and France, the social categorization as “migrant” is decided along racial lines. One rarely thinks of the white French living in Tunisia or the US-Americans living in France as “migrants.” On the other hand, Black Tunisians in Tunisia as well as Black and Arab communities in France remain perpetual migrants in spite of their legal citizenship in these countries.
While those categorized as “migrants” on both sides of the Mediterranean are constructed as pathological by the state and in civilian discourses, young migrant men face hyper-pathologization in both life and death. In contrast, migrant women and children are grouped together to produce what scholar Cynthia Enloe calls the trope of “womenandchildren,” where both groups are homogeneously infantilized while men’s bodies are made intrinsically dangerous.
For example, the standard images in news coverage about migration in Tunisia repeatedly have photos of Black men. It is only in instances where the news coverage wishes the readers to pity sub-Saharan migrants that we have images or enumeration of women and children in groups assumed to be containing only men. Pity is a gaze from the top rather than an engagement as an equal with the other. In this light, it is unsurprising that one of the widely circulated images of President Kais Saied from his visit to Sfax in mid-June included him looking benevolently at a sub-Saharan woman and child.
When someone assumed to be a woman or child acts outside of the self-infantilizing script imposed upon them, they become dangerous as well. For example, during a public march in the memory of Nahel, his mother Mounia’s smiling presence was critiqued because her “attitude” lacked “sincerity” according to some right-wing groups, and thus neither mother nor son deserved public sympathy.
While reflecting on the murder of Nahel, journalist Feurat Alani poses an important question: “Do you have to be killed to exist? Is it necessary to…be shot dead in order to be summoned to the memory of otherness, of political leaders, of the media, and even of the ordinary people?” Like Nahel, Alani had grown up in Nanterre categorized as Arab, and exposed to the social and political violence that this categorization accompanies. For a majority of Nahels, either Arab or Black, the recognition of their full human existence is absent in both life and death. No one mourns those who drown in the Mediterranean Sea or those who die making their way across the Sahara in order to find some dignity. They remain hordes even in death—faceless numbers, images of boats brimming with bodies.
Shreya Parikh is a dual PhD candidate in sociology at CERI-Sciences Po Paris and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
This article was first published here by Arica is a Country.