Mob attacks two Tunis shelters for LGBTQ people from sub-Saharan Africa
A mob of men wielding sticks and knives attacked a shelter for LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa on February 23. Police called to the site arrested at least eight people from sub-Saharan Africa, even though they have refugee status and are therefore legal residents in Tunisia. This is the latest violence to occur in a climate of growing hostility towards Black Africans, spurred by a campaign of repression by the authorities and xenophobic comments made by the Tunisian president.
A group of men attacked a shelter for LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa in Ariana, a northern suburb of Tunis during the night of Thursday, February 23. For residents at the shelter, it was a night of pure terror. Many were beaten while others sustained knife wounds. About thirty people, including at least six people in possession of refugee cards from the United Nations, were arrested that night.
This wasn’t the first attack of its kind. A few days earlier, on Monday, February 20, another mob attacked another shelter for LGBTQ refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, this one located in Bab el Khadhra, in the centre of Tunis.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team spoke to two refugees who were there during the attack in Ariana on February 23.
'The son of the landlord threatened to evict us. The next day, he returned with an armed mob'
Chiraz (not her real name) is a transgender refugee from a sub-Saharan Africa country. We are not using her real name to protect her safety. She was at the shelter in Ariana on February 23 when the mob attacked.
On the evening of February 23, the son of the landlord came, wanting to evict everyone living in the shelter. The night before, he had stood in front of the building and threatened us.
I don’t live in this shelter but we decided to gather together in one apartment for safety after the attack on another shelter for LGBTQ people from sub-Saharan Africa on February 20.
There were about 35 or 36 of us in the apartment that night, all of us Black people from sub-Saharan Africa. The son of the landlord, who often says racist and homophobic things to us refugees, came the night of February 23 along with several other Tunisian men. They tried to open the door with a copy of our keys but then ended up breaking it down.
They grabbed my hair, hard enough to pull out some of my locks and they stabbed several people. Other people were beaten, punched in the face.
'Instead of arresting the men who attacked us, the police took us away'
The police came later but instead of arresting the men who were attacking us, they brought us to the Borj Louzir police station [Ariana, a suburb of Tunis, NDLR]!
At the police station, we showed them our refugee cards from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. However, the police told us they thought our papers had been forged.
In order to get through the situation, I told the police that I was an artist from sub-Saharan Africa and claimed that my current appearance was an “artistic” look I was cultivating. I had to lie about my gender because I was worried about a transphobic attack from the police. Finally, they let seven of the eight of us who had refugee cards go.
However, the people who didn’t have refugee cards remain in detention.
A friend of mine who is transgender is still in detention, even though she has refugee status. According to my information, she’s been transferred to the El Ouardia migrant detention centre [Editor’s note: Formally, this Tunis establishment is known as a reception and orientation centre for migrants, however rampant human rights abuses there have been reported by both the media and NGOs].
I haven’t had any news from her since.
We are living in fear that we’ll be arrested or beaten in the street and, so, I don’t go out any more. As a Black trans woman, it is really hard for me to get housing in Tunisia. You come across landlords who want sexual favors or sometimes people will evict us when they realise that we are trans. Even with assistance from the HCR, it can take time to find housing.
"Chiraz" was given a place in a shelter run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on February 28. The Tunisian office of the HCR also paid for the medical care of those injured in the attack.
"Brian" (not real name) is another LGBTQ refugee from sub-Saharan Africa. He was injured during the attack on February 20 and is now homeless.
'The police ripped up our refugee cards and called us ‘f**s’'
The day after the attack, I was at the police station all day. We were mistreated— they insulted us and made us sit on the floor. Officers ripped up the refugee cards belonging to some of the people who had been arrested. Luckily, I didn’t end up in prison, unlike some of my friends.
Considering the situation right now, it’s already dangerous enough to just be walking on the street as a Black person. But now, when they see our refugee cards, then they know that we are homosexual or trans and they insult us, call us names.
Today, most of the people who were living in these shelters are on the street. About 15 of them are packed into an apartment that is still under construction. We are afraid and we don’t go out anymore.
We have been reaching out to our respective consulates and embassies for help but they told us that they can’t help us because we have refugee status from the UNHCR.
'An Algerian LGBTQ refugee in Tunisia won’t feel targeted, but Black people are often the targets of attacks'
Alexandre Marcel is the president of the IDAHO committee (International Day Against Homophobia), an NGO that fights against homophobia in French-speaking Africa. The organisation is trying to provide legal help to the victims of this wave of repression in Tunisia.
When there are arrests of this type, IDAHO tries to figure out if it is linked to someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Many people have been arrested even though they are refugees. And sometimes the police confiscate their papers and their passports and rip them up.
The [xenophobic] statements made by the president have made things completely different and dangerous. It’s gotten so bad that some taxi drivers will take a Black man directly to the police station if he gets into his vehicle. We’ve reached that point.
A LGBTQ refugee from Algeria who is living in Tunisia won’t feel targeted, but Black people are often the targets of attacks and threats. The shelters where these people stay are discrete and not official. However, when the police stumble across them, they tend to blow it all up— destroying people’s homes and personal belongings.
The HCR needs to open corridors for these people to travel to the west. These people have already experienced persecution at the hands of the state or the public. But the procedures to get to Europe or North America are difficult. You have to provide a lot of proof [of persecution] and that takes time.
The UNHCR should really enable people to apply for asylum in other countries from where they are being persecuted. Because, right now, if you want to request asylum, you actually have to get to the country where you want to be yourself and apply once there.
'We are calling on people to share any useful information with us'
Our team contacted several organisations dedicated to LGBTQ rights in Tunisia, but none of them had information about the fate of the undocumented LGBTQ people arrested on February 23.
Many migrants don’t know anything about their rights. Moreover, people within the LGBTQ sub-Saharan community are even more scared. As a result, the Tunisian NGO Damj, which is dedicated to fighting for minority rights, has been asking the public for help identifying people who need legal and social assistance. Najia Mansour, who runs the branch in Tunis and its environs, explains:
Even the president of Damj, who is Black, was attacked in the street.
We’ve set up three emergency phone lines depending on the region of the country where people are located – one in Tunis, for people in the north, one in Sfax, for people in the south, and one in Kef, in the centre of the country. We are calling on people to share any information they might have about migrants in difficulty.
Often, we need to wait for a victim to be released from custody in order to provide them with legal support. For the time being, it is an imperfect system, but working – we will wait for the person to be released and then file an administrative complaint over the mistreatment and torture they may have experienced at the hands of the authorities.
The FRANCE 24 Observers team tried to contact the police in Soukra and Borj Louzir, but they told us to contact the Interior Ministry.
We tried several times to contact the Interior Ministry, but with no success. We will publish their response if they do get back to us.