Tunisia's president denounced racism on Sunday and pointed to possible legal consequences for perpetrators 10 days after announcing a crackdown on illegal migration using language the African Union condemned as "racialized hate speech."
During a statement on February 21 telling security forces to expel all illegal immigrants, President Kais Saied called migration a conspiracy to change Tunisia's demographics by making it more African and less Arab.
Police detained hundreds of migrants, landlords summarily evicted hundreds from their homes and hundreds of others were fired from work, rights groups say.
Many migrants said they had been attacked, including being pelted with stones by gangs of youths in their neighborhoods, and rights groups said police had been slow to respond to such assaults.
While Saied denied racism in a statement on February 23, he repeated his view of immigration as a demographic plot. Before Sunday, Saied had not publicly warned of any legal consequences for the attacks.
In Sunday's statement he described the accusations of racism as a campaign against the country "from known sources," without elaborating.
But he added that Tunisia was honored to be an African country and announced a relaxation of visa rules for African citizens, allowing stays of up to six months instead of three without seeking residency, and of a year for students.
He said migrants who had overstayed could leave without penalty after many of those authorities sought to deport had proven unable to pay fines for late stays.
He painted his crackdown on illegal migration as being a campaign against human trafficking and pointed to a law passed in 2018 against discrimination to say that any verbal or physical attacks on foreigners would be prosecuted.
Opposition parties and rights groups have said Saied's crackdown on immigrants, which coincided with arrests of senior opposition figures, was aimed at distracting from Tunisia's economic crisis.
Saied seized most powers in 2021, shutting down the elected parliament, moving to rule by decree and rewriting the constitution, steps his foes including the main political parties call a coup.
He has said his actions were legal and needed to save Tunisia from chaos.