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Middle East and North Africa

22 min read

Introduction

Sarah El Ashmawy

A significant proportion of the Afro-descendant population in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) originate in the long history of commerce with sub-Saharan Africa, in particular the slave trade, with millions brought over by Arab slavers to be sold in the region – a practice that persisted well into the nineteenth century. Though estimates vary, there is general consensus that the scale of the trade was very considerable, with one source calculating that between 1700 and 1880 around 800,000 slaves were taken to Egypt, 515,000 to Morocco, 400,000 to Libya, 100,000 to Tunisia and 65,000 to Algeria.[i]

It is important to note that not all these communities were created as a result of the slave trade or related activities: Nubians, for instance, are considered indigenous peoples of Egypt and are believed to have been settled beside the Nile in what is now southern Egypt for thousands of years. Furthermore, many black communities settled in the region through historical migration. Nevertheless, the intensity and longevity of the slave trade has left an important legacy of discrimination towards Afro-descendant populations across the MENA region.

More recently, successive waves of migration to different parts of the region – for example, the flows of sub-Saharan workers to Libya during the rule of Muammar Gaddafi – have led to increasing xenophobia towards black populations, as evidenced by the persecution of Tawergha and other black Libyans after Gaddafi’s fall in 2011. Elsewhere, such as in Morocco, a growing population of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa have been subjected to exploitation and abuse, including a growing second generation born in the country. 

The diversity of MENA’s Afro-descendant communities

Despite limited recognition across MENA, the region hosts a wide variety of Afro-descendant communities with distinct histories and identities. Even within countries, particularly those with relatively large black populations, members may originate from different patterns of movement that include slavery, migration and longer term settlement.

In Iraq, for example, the Afro-Iraqi community accounts for approximately 1.5–2 million people,[ii] mostly concentrated around Basra. While the first arrivals in Iraq were brought to the country as slaves to cultivate the land were known as Zanj, after the island of Zanzibar that is now part of modern-day Tanzania,[iii] it is important to note that many Africans have also voluntarily settled in Iraq over the centuries. They also continued to be brought into the country as workers, soldiers or servants from many different countries until the beginning of the twentieth century.

A variety of factors have contributed to the relative lack of information on these communities. In some cases, most of the Afro-descendant population is concentrated in certain parts of the country, often some distance from the state capital and other centres of power. In Tunisia, for instance, the majority of black Tunisians reside in the less developed region of the south – a factor that may reinforce their marginalization at a national level. Furthermore, as in much of the region elsewhere, no official figures on the size of the population are collected, making targeted interventions and other measures such as parliamentary quotas very difficult to implement.

This limited visibility, however, is also replicated in international analysis. For example, though often overlooked within the context of the conflict with Israel, Palestine has a small but highly visible Afro-descendant community which, like many Afro-descendant communities in the region, dates back to the slave trade period during the Ottoman era – though a considerable proportion of the Afro-Palestinian community may have arrived in Palestine earlier, during the Islamic period, as they fled Sudan. Their presence is especially evident in certain towns, such as Jenin, Tulkarem and Jericho, where they represent a significant proportion of the population. Yet information on this community, as well as other Afro-descendant populations in countries such as Iran or Jordan, remains scarce.

Current challenges

In spite of their diversity, Afro-descendant communities from Iran to Tunisia face similar issues, including lack of awareness of their existence, government neglect and social prejudice. In many cases these factors are interlinked, with popular prejudice and racism reinforced by an environment of institutional discrimination. State policies, such as the programme of ‘Arabization’ under Gaddafi, have also contributed to the marginalization of certain black communities. These include Libya’s Tebu, a semi-nomadic tribe long resident in the border area with Chad and currently numbering tens of thousands within the country, who were effectively stripped of their citizenship in 2007.[iv]

One challenge is that in many countries, while they are deeply marginalized, Afro-descendant communities remain formally unrecognized due to a lack of disaggregated data or limited official definitions that do not reflect the reality of the inequalities they experience. Black Iraqis, for instance, continue to reside in overcrowded and poorly serviced neighbourhoods, with unemployment levels of around 80 per cent. Participation in public life remains severely restricted, even in areas where they comprise the majority of the local population: in Al-Zubayr district in Basra, though 70 per cent of residents are black Iraqis, there is reportedly not a single member of their community on the district council or in the police force.[v]

Black Iraqis continue to face considerable obstacles to their recognition as a minority. Unlike for most communities, there are no state-promoted quotas for representation in government and black Iraqis have yet to achieve high-level office within the country.[vi] This situation is exacerbated by the fact that, in a context of widespread prejudice and the intimidation of community activists, many black Iraqis choose to identify instead according to their religion.[vii]

Even Egyptian Nubians, despite their historic presence in the country, have experienced serious discrimination, including the confiscation of their lands by the Egyptian governments of the 1960s and 1970s to construct the Aswan dam. The subsequent formation of Lake Nasser inundated their territory and homes, forcing entire villages to relocate to resettlement areas that were built without community consultation. This displacement took a high toll on Nubian culture, which many fear could now disappear, given its deep roots in their ancestral land. Meanwhile, in major centres elsewhere, such as Cairo, Egyptian Nubians are regularly harassed on the basis of their skin colour.

In many countries, too, Afro-descendant communities are still commonly described in terms of the historical servitude experienced by many community members of previous generations, using terms such as abeed (slave) in Tunisia or akhdam (servant) in Yemen. These labels have helped drive the broader stigmatization of these communities. More recently, increasing flows of migration from sub-Saharan Africa have also intensified racist discrimination towards national black populations; for example, in Tunisia, black Tunisians in the north of the country – where the community is less numerous than in the south – are often assumed by their fellow citizens to be foreign migrants.

After the Arab Spring – future prospects for MENA’s Afro-descendant communities

In the wake of the series of popular uprisings known collectively as the Arab Spring, beginning in 2011 in Tunisia and soon spreading to neighbouring countries such as Egypt and Libya, the situation of Afro-descendant communities in the region has changed considerably – for better and for worse. While tentative steps away from decades of authoritarianism have helped expand the democratic space for some communities to participate socially and politically, elsewhere – most notably, in Libya – the failure to establish effective rule of law has left black Libyans vulnerable to violent attacks and displacement.

Racist prejudice and the alleged presence of black mercenaries within Gaddafi’s militias led to indiscriminate attacks and mass killings of black Libyans after the fall of the old regime. Among those communities collectively targeted were the Tawerghans, with an estimated 40,000 forced to flee their hometown of Tawergha by Misrata-based militias: they continue to live a precarious existence in informal settlements, without basic services and at constant risk of harassment, while Tawergha itself remains abandoned several years on.

Yet even in Libya, there have been some tentative signs of progress, with the country’s newly adopted 2014 Constitution officially recognizing Tebu as well as other marginalized groups as ethnic minorities. In Egypt, too, where the post-2011 political transition has also been characterized by internal division and violence, the approval of a new Constitution in 2014 with a provision making a commitment ‘to bring back the residents of [Egyptian] Nubia to their original areas and develop them within ten years’ could go some way to providing redress to the community after decades of displacement.[viii] In Tunisia, though reports of discrimination and targeted violence continue unabated, black Tunisians nevertheless are able to advocate more freely for rights and recognition.

A common denominator is that, while insecurity and division have contributed to the continued persecution of black populations across the region, the Arab Spring has helped establish a discourse of rights and inclusion that has at times provided these communities with a platform to mobilize for increased participation and protections. Though often overlooked in analysis of MENA, their situation in the coming years will serve as an important test of the region’s ability to navigate away from conflict and instability towards a more peaceful and tolerant future.

Nubians in Egypt. Credit: Cinty Ionescu

Nubians in Egypt. Credit: Cinty Ionescu

Israel: the struggle of Ethiopian Israelis for inclusion

Vanessa Mazzei

Ethiopian Israelis have been settling in the country for over three decades, with around a third of the approximately 140,000 community members born in Israel, yet they continue to experience acute discrimination on the margins of society. The figures speak for themselves: previous analysis of 2008–9 government data by the Myers-JDC-Brookdale Institute showed that poverty levels among Ethiopian Israelis were 41 per cent, compared to 15 per cent among the general Jewish population.

Some civil society organizations argue that this situation is the direct result of discriminatory government policies. For instance, programmes implemented by the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption have tended to relegate the Ethiopian community to poorer neighbourhoods and continued to treat all of them as immigrants, despite the fact that 70 per cent of the community are no longer ‘new immigrants’, according to the normal definition of the term by the State of Israel. According to Fidel, the Association for Education and Social Integration of Ethiopian Jews in Israel:

‘The fact that the Ministry of Aliyah and Immigrant Absorption is responsible for addressing the majority of the Ethiopian-Israeli community’s social and educational issues is inappropriate when the majority of the Ethiopian-Israeli community immigrated to Israel over 30 years ago, and perpetuates segregation.

‘Specialized support for the Ethiopian-Israeli community should be integrated into the relevant governmental department work programmes. For example, the Ministry of Education rather than the Ministry of Absorption should be taking responsibility for implementation of educational programs for Ethiopian-Israeli students.’

The experience of immigration has also led to significant social change within the Ethiopian community. ‘The cultural crisis that the community faced when they immigrated to Israel had a significant impact on the roles of men and women,’ explains Michelle Shelemay Dvir, Director of Development at Fidel, adding:

‘In Ethiopia, the different roles of women and men were very clearly delineated, with women responsible for the domestic sphere – cooking, weaving and taking care of the children – whereas the men were the dominant authority figures and decision-makers in the family.’

This changed when they came to Israel. Also, as they are mainly responsible for the children, Ethiopian women have greater exposure to the school system, more contact with other Israeli parents through their children and thus generally integrate more effectively into Israeli society than Ethiopian-Israeli men.

A related issue is the transformation that the traditional Ethiopian family unit has undergone since immigration. ‘Since the children learned the language and generally adapted more quickly,’ says Michelle, ‘there was a reversal of the roles of parent and child, causing many of the parents to feel disempowered and unable to support their children.’ Inevitably this is linked to other problems and has contributed to a growing identity issue, especially among teens.

‘The majority of Ethiopian-Israeli teens were born in Israel but are grappling with their identity as both Ethiopian and Israeli – they are struggling to find their place in society and [at the same time] struggling with issues of racism and tolerance.’

Consequently, while Fidel undertakes a range of activities to enhance educational attainment within the community, a key element in the organization’s strategy is the strengthening of the family unit, with staff activists striving to involve the parents as much as possible in their children’s lives and to improve parent–child communication. These efforts have served as a catalyst for positive change within the community. For example, the Fidel school mediator programme has served approximately 17,000 pupils across the country to date, with the dropout rate in schools operating the programme dropping by around 95 per cent: academic performance has improved, parents are active in the educational process and the number of youth passing their matriculation exams has increased significantly.

It is hoped that better access to education could also support a broader transformation of the community situation in other areas, such as employment. Though there have been some improvements over the years, the position of Ethiopian Israelis in the labour market remains significantly worse than that of the general Jewish population. For example, though a 2005 amendment to the 1959 Public Service Law stipulated that Ethiopian Israelis should be adequately represented at all levels of public office, the proportion remains disproportionately low. More generally, sizeable gaps in wages and professional occupations persist.

Nevertheless, in recent years there have been some sign of progress, including the election to the parliamentary Knesset in 2013 of Pnina Tamano-Shata – the first female Ethiopian-Israeli to win a seat – though she subsequently lost it in the 2015 election when her party won fewer seats. The community has also achieved greater visibility within Israel’s popular culture, with Yityish Aynaw becoming the first woman of African descent to be crowned Miss Israel in February 2013.

These are small but important steps towards Fidel’s vision of an Ethiopian-Israeli community that is socially and economically integrated into Israeli society, yet proud of its unique identity. While actualizing this aim remains a somewhat distant prospect, the organization is optimistic that, with continued advocacy and community mobilization, the prospect of an inclusive and equitable society for Ethiopian Israelis could one day become a reality.

The continued discrimination facing black Tunisians

Vanessa Mazzei

Tunisia’s sizeable black population has been marginalized for generations. Although Tunisian census data does not take ethnicity into account and there are no specific numbers available, some sources estimate that black Tunisians make up as much as 10 to 15 per cent of the population, with most residing in the south of the country. Yet they remain almost wholly absent from public life and employment, including government positions and other senior roles.

Despite this discrimination, there is still widespread reluctance in the country to admit that racism exists. This stems mainly from the fact that, prior to the 2011 revolution, the subject was taboo because it was seen as undermining national unity. Yet, in reality, some still refer to black Tunisians as abeed, Arabic for slaves, and many black families in the south still bear the names of their ex-slave owners.

Activists say that the government should make name-changing procedures easier for these people, because of the pejorative implications their names carry. In Djerba many even have the term Atig, meaning ‘freed slave’, as a last name on their identity card, while in some remote villages black Tunisians have to take separate buses from the rest of the population. Furthermore, prior to 2011, the country’s Constitution had abolished all forms of association, which made it difficult to organize efforts to advance equality for the black population.

The 2011 revolution gave a chance for this silent and repressed minority to be heard, however. The first organization in the country to fight for the rights of black Tunisians, ADAM for Equality and Development in Tunisia, was formed shortly afterwards to advocate for legal change to strengthen anti-discrimination provisions. Nevertheless, popular denial of the scale of the problem persisted until Mariam Touré, a young Malian student, published an open letter to Tunisians in October 2014 in which she denounced the harassment she was subjected to on a daily basis in a society she believed was ‘infected’ with racism.

M’Nemty is one of the best-known NGOs advocating for the rights of black Tunisians. Like ADAM, it has been campaigning since 2012 and often leads marches in the streets of the capital to denounce discrimination and promote equality. Saadia Mosbah, the organization’s president, described to MRG the impact the letter had within Tunisia.

‘Mariam’s letter felt like a slap in the face for my compatriots, who wanted to show the rest of the world that racism is not part of the values of the Tunisian,’ she said. ‘The issues that Mariam highlighted are known to Tunisians, who refuse to recognize themselves in the behaviour that she has written about. This reality, which has always been hidden, shamed them – this is why they are in denial.’

The media also actively feeds this problem by refusing to inform the general public about the real issues at stake. In January 2015, for example, M’Nemty held a press meeting to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Tunisia. The event received little coverage, however. ‘The journalists who attended,’ says Mosbah, ‘explicitly told us that they were forbidden by their editors to write about the issues that we brought up.’

Mosbah also described how difficult it is for the black community to organize itself. Because the authorities fail to recognize the seriousness of the issue, Afro-Tunisians are still very much spectators rather than participants in the country’s social, political and economic life. ‘“Minority” is a problematic term in Tunisia,’ says Mosbah. ‘We replace it with the term “community”.’ Furthermore, associations like M’Nemty have to deal with a lack of donor support and the challenges of self-financing, as well as limited popular awareness and restrictive eligibility requirements.

Though the high expectations of the Arab Spring have yet to be realized and discrimination in Tunisia is still entrenched, Mosbah acknowledges that there has been some progress – the very fact that discussion of these issues is possible is a significant milestone for the community. ‘This is a new conversation that we are having,’ she says, ‘and it stems from the new freedom of expression.’ These first steps towards acceptance and tolerance are part of the country’s broader transition towards a more inclusive democracy. Ensuring this long-neglected constituency is able to take part in Tunisia’s future will therefore be an important element in the country’s long-term development and stability.

Migrants in Bir Lahlou in the Free Zone of Western Sahara on their way to Morocco.

Migrants in Bir Lahlou in the Free Zone of Western Sahara on their way to Morocco.

The dangers of living as an undocumented migrant in Morocco

Ioana Moraru

In August 2013 Ismaila Faye, a 31-year-old Senegalese, was stabbed to death on a bus after he refused to vacate his seat next to a Moroccan woman. The murder, widely condemned as an act of racism by the Senegalese community and local rights groups, is just one example of an endemic problem in the country: the mistreatment of its sub-Saharan population. Since the 1990s, Morocco has become an increasingly popular transit country for migrants seeking a better life in Europe. But while poverty, political turmoil, civil conflict and persecution continue to push large numbers of sub-Saharans to leave their countries, strict European border controls and the high costs of migration have meant that, in practice, many remain in Morocco for years.

The marginalization of undocumented migrants, who receive no support or official recognition from the government, not only undermines their access to housing, employment and basic services, but also places them outside the formal justice system. In fact, undocumented migrants face widespread discrimination at all levels of society – including from the police and government officials. Local attitudes to sub-Saharan migrants are often characterized by deep-rooted prejudice and stereotypes, associating migrants with terrorism, AIDS and criminality. These negative representations have also been reinforced by the media.

Due to their clandestine status, undocumented migrants are not only underpaid by employers and overcharged for basic necessities such as food and accommodation, they are also unable to benefit from police protection or make use of official channels of complaint. This makes them especially vulnerable. Recent research and interviews have shown that attacks and intimidation are regular events, encouraged by their lack of formal recognition in the country. In the words of a 2013 Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) report, ‘The fact that sub-Saharan migrants are classified as “illegal” means that the majority live with the constant fear of arrest and expulsion and the ever present threat of violence, abuse and exploitation.’

This is why other sub-Saharan migrants viewed Faye’s murder not as an isolated incident but part of a broader pattern of exclusion and discrimination in the country. In the wake of his death, hundreds of Senegalese congregated in Rabat to protest against racism. Moroccans also went online to voice their support for the migrant community.

While there have been positive signs of change, including a new migration policy announced in 2013 that announced the establishment of a refugee determination system and the regularization of thousands of undocumented migrants, official policies have continued to result not only in police raids and deportations but also regular instances of targeted attacks against sub-Saharan residents. Recent examples include the murder of a 25-year-old Senegalese migrant, Charles Ndour, in August 2014 by a Moroccan gang.

Beyond the most high-profile assaults, however, a daily backdrop of sustained violence persists, driven by deep-rooted prejudice and continued institutional failings within the police. While the 2013 legislative reforms are welcome, much remains to be done before Morocco’s sub-Saharan population can fully enjoy their rights.

Egypt: Nubian community health support systems

Sarah El Ashmawy

The opening in January 2011 by then President Mubarak of a new hospital in Aswan, the capital of Nubia in southern Egypt, only underlined the government’s long-term neglect of the health needs of Nubians. This remains the case, despite the dramatic political change of the last few years within the country.

In Cairo, in response to this exclusion, the Nubian community organized a support system for members of their community who need to access health care that was not available in Aswan. Each of the 22 villages of the Nubian region collected money to rent or buy a modest space in Cairo where inhabitants of the same village could stay while receiving health care in Cairo. This was coordinated through the Nubian club, which was created to maintain the cohesion of the Nubian community in Cairo and has an apartment in Tahrir Square for Nubians to meet and seek support when facing any troubles. The Nubian club was thus at the heart of the self-created health care support system.

This self-support system is a symptom of the problem of health care in Egypt, particularly in the peripheries of the country like Nubia. Despite the efforts of the Nubian community in Cairo to help Nubians living elsewhere to access services, the quality of health care accessed in Cairo by Nubians depends on their income and resources, which are usually among the lowest in the country. To tackle this, Cairo Nubians have consolidated networks of individuals inside hospitals and medical centres who are willing to help Nubians in dire need of health care. But the problem remains bigger than the action of individuals.

There is a long history of government neglect of Nubians in Egypt. Many Nubians were forced to leave their land to make way for the construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s. The government promised compensation and shelter; however, the resettlement plan offered poorly designed buildings for Nubian families. There were very few employment opportunities in the urban ‘new’ Nubia, and as a result many Nubians moved to Cairo for better education and employment opportunities. Nubians had little or no access to basic services.

The Aswan hospital is the only one in the new Nubia to serve the 22 villages of the Aswan governorate. The eight medical centres scattered around new Nubia are difficult to access, lack basic medical equipment and often have no personnel. In some places, Nubians have to travel 44 km to access their closest medical centre, some of which are not even equipped to treat injuries or deliver babies. The lack of the simplest equipment, such as antidotes for scorpion bites or dialysis machines, has led to deaths from diseases which are easily preventable. The Aswan hospital, for example, only has two dialysis machines, one of which is not functional.

This is not only due to the poor health care policies of the Egyptian government but also the lack of reliance on local resources. Doctors from Cairo who work in the hospital leave Nubia three days a week to go back home, while Nubian medical students pursue their careers in Cairo. Nubians have frequently addressed their local governor, demanding better social services, including health care. Each time, their demands have been met with a promise of policy change, followed by a ‘bureaucratic’ excuse that refers the action back to the Cairo cabinet.

Lost in the pile of files referred back to the Cairo cabinet, the lack of action on the issue of health care in Nubia has left Ahmad, an 11-year-old boy from Aswan who suffers from epilepsy, no choice but to travel to Cairo. Here he hopes to find an Egyptian doctor who will finally sign a form that will enable him to access health care in Cairo, rather than the Aswan hospital, which cannot provide him with the care he needs.

[i] Bader, R., ‘Noirs en Algérie, XIXème–XXème siècles’, Thematic session, ‘Society, scenes and actors’, Grand amphithéâtre de l’Institut d’Etudes Politiques, Lyon, 20 June 2006.

[ii] Puttick, M., From Crisis to Catastrophe: The Situation of Minorities in Iraq, London, MRG, October 2014, p. 6.

[iii] Labbe, T., ‘A legacy hidden in plain sight’, The Washington Post, 11 January 2004.

[iv] Van Waas, L., The Stateless Tebu of Libya? Report of the Middle East and North Africa Nationality and Statelessness Research Project, Tilburg Law School Legal Studies Research Paper Series, May 2013, p. 7.

[v] Puttick, op. cit., p. 20.

[vi] Salloum, S., ‘Will Iraqi blacks win justice?’, The New York Times, 22 July 2014.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Schwartzstein, P., ‘Changing Egypt offers hope to long-marginalized Nubians’, National Geographic, 1 February 2014.

This story pack marks The International Decade for People of African Descent, officially launched by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.