The precarious status of migrants labours in Tunisia is visible. Sub-Saharan migrants are over-represented in low paid service jobs such as assistant waiters, bathroom cleaners, or street and public space cleaners. Of the 53,000 foreigners that live in Tunisia, 12,000 are from sub-Saharan Africa[1]. Yet institutionally, these migrants are nowhere.

Restricted access to the labor market

Tunisian labor laws give employment preference to Tunisian citizens. However, foreigners do not experience equal discrimination when looking for work. The labor code, and all immigration and residency laws, is determined by binary logic linking the permeability of the labor market for foreigners to the rate of unemployment[2].

Tunisia has high unemployment rates, especially among young people in disadvantaged regions.

The lack of work opportunities and the failure of the economic development model were among the main initiators of the political transition of 2011. Since then, unemployment has steadily increased, registered at 17.8% in the first quarter of 2021[3].

In 2017, sub-Saharan migrants represented only 4% of the total number of foreign workers who obtained a work permit[4]. This is the lowest rate compared to all other non-nationals (see table 1). This level was only 2% in the first two years following the Revolution (2011-12)[5].

Tunisia seems to obey a neoliberal logic that links the proportionality of foreign investments by states to the allocation of work permits to their nationals. 40% of foreign workers in the country are citizens of Western Europe, states that are major foreign investors in Tunisia[6].
According to Foreign Investment Promotion Agency (FIPA) data from 2019, France (€171,860 million) Germany (€57,450 million) and Italy (€55,220 million) are the three largest foreign investors. France alone holds 34% of all foreign investment in Tunisia[7]. In contrast, the Tunisian Center for the Promotion of Exports (CEPEX) indicates that the sub-Saharan African market represents only 2.2% of Tunisian exports compared to 73.7% which goes to the European Union (EU)[8]. Tunisia is the 62nd largest supplier to sub-Saharan countries.
Foreign investment is not the only factor that influences Tunisian migration policies. The second-largest community of regular foreign workers in Tunisia in 2017 was citizens from Arab countries (31%). This suggests a common culture and identity are more of a factor than economics[9].  For example, Tunisia ratified a bilateral convention for the free movement of labor with Morocco in 1966[10].

Table 1: Distribution of regular migrant workers by region of origin in Tunisia in 2017[11]

RegionWork Permits Granted%
Western Europe220040%
Arab countries (not including Arabic-speaking sub-Saharan countries)168631%
Eastern Europe3957%
Sub Saharan Africa2374%
North America1172%
South America 791%
Australasia 70%

A structural societal racism:  

In addition to suffering from institutional discrimination sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia face when trying to legally gain employment and housing, they also experience societal racism. The law for the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, passed in 2018[12], is inapplicable in case of irregularity[13] despite this law criminalizing racist speech, hate speech, and discrimination based on skin color, all of which are punishable by a 3000 dinars fine and one to three years in prison. However, as the majority of sub-Saharans in Tunisia live either in disadvantaged neighborhoods or in hiding, they cannot resort to this legislation. Furthermore, a number of them reported police abuse when filing complaints[14].

Housing discrimination and scams, or attempted scams, are also common. When sub-Saharan migrants manage to find accommodation, it is often overpriced and unsanitary that costs them excessively.

In addition, a 2019 survey by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) reports the array of discrimination experienced by sub-Saharans in Tunisia. The people questioned declared having suffered insults (89.60%), physical violence (33.90%), scams (29.60%), violations (22.90%), blackmail (7.80%) and lack of respect (4%)[15].

Right to health? 

There is no law or legal provision, except for circular 16/2000 on access to free antiretroviral treatment, which excludes foreigners from access to health care. Nor are there any that explicitly include foreigners in access to medical care. This remains a barrier to access to healthcare, despite repeated efforts to raise awareness among civil society.

Access to healthcare for the most vulnerable migrants is often provided through associations because there are no state public policies that provide impoverished non-citizens with access to health care. Consular representations also do not have budgets allocated to providing healthcare for their nationals. In addition, since the outbreak of the COVID-19  pandemic in Tunisia, health instructions to help prevent further infections have only been communicated in Arabic, thus excluding non-Arabic-speaking migrants.

During the confinement, weak measures by the state were in order. Thus, and despite a strong mobilization of multiple civil society actors and an appeal launched in April 2020 by a group of associations[16], no national plan has been put in place to inform the migrant communities in Tunisia. Pandemic measures such as hotlines for access to healthcare and other prevention services are needed to effectively prevent the virus from spreading.

In parallel with the lockdown, although the state announced the suspension of overdue visa-related fines, no regularization procedure was launched, despite calls from civil society[17]. This would have allowed irregular migrants access health professionals without fear of being denounced or deported.

In the same vein, the main demand of the hunger strike started by migrants detained in El Ouardia was not heeded by the authorities[18]. 31 migrants from the centre refused food for two weeks to protest the insufficient medical care, unsanitary conditions, and lack of precautionary measures linked to COVID-19. The Tunisian authorities thus refused to release them.

Proposed solutions

An inclusive standardised approach should be considered. Migrants arriving in Tunisia must immediately have access to reliable and up-to-date information about the support and integration tools available. Support in finding work, accommodation, and access to health care must happen, regardless of the migrant’s legal status.

This system for accepting new arrivals must be standardized and systematized. The various stakeholders, from health professionals to border officials, must be trained in the protection and support of migrants in vulnerable situations.

Regarding irregular migrants already present in the country and that have already entered the local labor market, a possibility of legalising their status should be considered.

For the effective implementation of public policies to support migrants, migrants, community and support associations and consulates should be stakeholders in the solutions.

  1. Regarding access to the regular labor market, the work permit allocation policy must be reviewed to expand access to people working in the least paid sectors. Where appropriate, a regularization procedure must be provided. More sub-Saharan migrants should be granted work permits.
  1. Regarding the law relating to the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination, specific provisions must be considered to allow sub-Saharan migrants to complain without risk of being detained or deported. This can be achieved through the creation of specialized units inside police stations. This measure can also facilitate access to housing by allowing migrants to report cases of discrimination among landlords.
  1. Regarding access to health, migrants’ right to health must be explicitly mentioned, in particular in article 38 of the constitution. Migrants must be informed of the health services available upon arrival. A budget for consular representations must be negotiated.


– A clear and comprehensive communication strategy and a standardised reception system for new arrivals must be put in place, in cooperation between the various state institutions concerned (Ministries of Employment, Health, Interior) and civil society actors.

The various migration stakeholders must be trained in the specificity of vulnerable migrants, in particular through the creation of support units.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, in consultation with the Ministry of Health, must negotiate a budget allocated to health care with the consular representations of the most vulnerable migrants present in Tunisia.

The Ministry of the Interior, in consultation with civil society and community associations, should set up specialized units within police stations to receive complaints from migrants. These can follow the model of the units specializing in violence against women set up by Law 2017-58.

The Tunisian legislative system concerning access to the labor market and the possibilities of regularization of status must be reformed. Migrants in poorly paid service jobs should have access to a residence permit and some form of social security.

[1]Official figures greatly underestimate the extent of the sub-Saharan presence in Tunisia, with most migrants living irregularly. An unprecedented survey on international migration, not yet published, was conducted at the initiative of the National Institute of Statistics and the National Migration Observatory[2] Said Ben Sedrine, “Défis à Relever Pour Un Accueil Décent de La Migration Subsaharienne En Tunisie” (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, 2018),[3][4][5]Ben Sedrine (2018) p.28[6]Ben Sedrine (2018) p.28[7]WMC and TAP, “Almost 8% drop in the flow of foreign investments in Tunisia in 2019 (FIPA),” Web Manager Center, February 6, 2020,[8]Tunisian Center for the Promotion of Exports (CEPEX), “Overview of Trade Cooperation Between Tunisia and Sub-Saharan Africa”CEPEX, 2017[9] Ben Sedrine, (2018) p.28.[10] Royal Decree No 208-66 (3 June 1966) Ratifying two conventions signed in Tunis on 9 December 1964 between the Kingdom of Morocco and the Republic of Tunisia.” (Kingdom of Morocco, 24 August 1966)[11]Ben Sedrine (2018) p.29 [12]Organic Law No. 2018-50 of 23 October 2018, relating to the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination [13]Stéphanie Pouessel (2019) Tunisia: Racial Discrimination Law does not benefit those who need it,” Middle East Eye.[14] Author interview with Dr. Faten Msakni[15][16] Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (2020) Government measures are encouraging but further policies needed to protect migrants and refugees from Covid-19. [17][18]TN24 (2020) Migrants end their hunger strike in the center of El Ouardia.

Le contributeur

Yasmine AKRIMI

A PhD candidate at Political Sciences, Grand University, Belgium and analysist of research on Northa Africa at Brussel International Center for Strategic Analysis. She is focusing essentially at the movements of contestation, migration and racial dynamics and gender questions in Maghreb.

Back to top