/ 8 March 2023

World Bank halts Tunisia partnership programme over president’s ‘hate speech’

The World Bank is pausing talks over its future engagement with Tunisia following anti-immigrant comments made by the country’s president, Kais Saied. (Photo by Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The World Bank is pausing talks over its future engagement with Tunisia following anti-immigrant comments made by the country’s president, Kais Saied, according to an internal message to World Bank staff seen by AFP.

In the message sent on Sunday evening, the bank’s outgoing president David Malpass said Saied’s tirade had triggered “racially motivated harassment and even violence,” and that the institution had postponed a planned meeting involving Tunisia until further notice.

“Given the situation, management has decided to pause the country partnership framework and withdraw it from board review,” said Malpass in the note to staff.

AFP understands that ongoing projects will continue and funded projects remain financed.

Hundreds of migrants have flown home from Tunisia, fearful of a wave of violence since the president’s remarks.

Last month, Saied ordered officials to take “urgent measures” to tackle irregular migration, claiming without evidence that “a criminal plot” was underway to change Tunisia’s demographic makeup.

He claimed that migrants were behind most crime in the North African country, fueling a spate of sackings, evictions and attacks.

‘Completely unacceptable’

“Public commentary that stokes discrimination, aggression and racist violence is completely unacceptable,” said Malpass in the note to World Bank staff.

But he also noted that measures announced by the Tunisian government to protect and support migrants and refugees marked a “positive step”, adding that the bank would assess and monitor its impact carefully.

The development lender will roll out additional safety measures for its staff on the ground, and may take more action if needed, he added.

The African Union expressed “deep shock and concern” at Saied’s remarks, and governments in sub-Saharan Africa have scrambled to bring home hundreds of frightened nationals who flocked to their embassies for help.

The US is “deeply concerned” by Saied’s remarks, state department spokesperson Ned Price said. 

“These remarks are not in keeping with Tunisia’s long history of generosity and hosting and protecting refugees, asylum seekers and migrants,” he said.

“We urge Tunisian authorities to meet their obligations under international law to protect the rights of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants,” he added.

He also called on Tunisian authorities to facilitate the “safe, dignified and voluntary” return of migrants wishing to travel to their countries of origin.

Since the president’s speech on 21 February, rights groups reported a spike in vigilante violence, including stabbings targeting African migrants. 

“We condemn without reservation any and all statements that are xenophobic, that are racist, that are meant to increase racial hatred,” said Stephane Dujarric, a spokesperson for UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres on Monday. 

According to official figures, there are around 21 000 undocumented migrants from other parts of Africa in Tunisia, which is home to around 12 million people.

Many African migrants in the country lost their jobs and homes overnight.

The embassies of Côte d’Ivoire and Mali provided emergency accommodation for dozens of their citizens evicted from their homes, including children.

People living in Tunisia whose countries have no diplomatic representation in the country had set up makeshift camps outside the Tunis offices of the International Organisation for Migration.