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City Spotlight: Sousse, Tunisia

The ancient city of Sousse sits on Tunisia’s eastern coastline. Its Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a well-preserved labyrinth of narrow streets, historical and architectural landmarks and traditional shops. Following the 2015 terrorist attack, the city upgraded its security measures and infrastructure, ensuring the safety of its residents and visitors alike. Today, Sousse uses its diversity to enhance resident and visitor experiences, standing as an example resilience and revival.

Although not a member of the Strong Cities Network, the Network’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Regional Hub has nevertheless engaged with local government practitioners from Sousse on multiple occasions, including at the Hub’s inaugural workshop in Rabat (Morocco) in March 2023 and at the Strong Cities’ Fourth Global Summit in New York City (USA) in September 2023.

What is the local government concerned about?

The City of Sousse has experienced an influx of internal rural-to-urban migrants, further compounded by a recent surge in new arrivals from abroad. This number of newcomers has strained the city’s capacity to provide even the most basic living essentials to all its residents, including adequate housing. It also risks tension between migrants and long-term residents, the latter of whom may feel the city’s already scarce resources are being diverted to support newcomers. These challenges take place in the context of a country-wide increase in school dropouts, particularly within marginalised neighbourhoods, including in Sousse. This leaves the city grappling with constant demographic changes, the emergence of informal housing and disenfranchised youth who are left vulnerable with few prospects for employment as a result of them dropping out of school.

The terrorist attack in Sousse in 2015, orchestrated by a school dropout, underscores the seriousness of the situation, and reinforces the need for attention and support in these vulnerable areas and communities.

How is the local government responding?

The City of Sousse has developed a multi-faceted strategy for addressing these issues. For example, the local government has deployed a number of initiatives focused on fostering the economic and social inclusion of migrants into the city. This includes deploying awareness-raising campaigns to mitigate stigma and dehumanisation of migrants and mobilising non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and different city agencies to adopt a charter for the defence of migrants’ rights. The local government has also established an “orientation desk” that serves as a dedicated resource for migrants as they settle in the city, as well as a municipal migration observatory, which collects and analyses data relating to migrants that can be used to inform policy and programming.

In addition to these efforts at the local level, the city has successfully advocated for the Tunisian national government to recognise the role of local governments in managing migration challenges, earning it the title of “A Solidary City with Migrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers”. It has also partnered with the National Office for Family and Population (NOFP) and International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to deploy a mobile unit that to provide immediate, hands-on support in communities with high numbers of migrants, and to raise awareness of the services and support (both by the local government and IOM as an international partner) available to them. Partnership with the NOFP also resulted in the development of resources on migration for both new arrivals and service providers. This includes the creation of a referral mechanism “cheat sheet” that outlines the agencies/stakeholders responsible for different types of service provisions for migrants.

The city has also implemented programmes to address the increasing rate of school dropouts. For example, the local government partnered with MedCities and a school in one of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods of the city to deliver a pilot project (2014-2015) that sought to make schools more accommodating to vulnerable students. This included through offering dedicated pedagogic support to students at risk of dropping out, psychosocial support for parents and students, increasing the number of cultural and sporting activities available to students, and partnering with civil society organisations to improve the school’s facilities (e.g., updating the playground and painting murals to make the school a brighter and visibly welcoming place). The project resulted in greater interest and engagement in classes amongst students and inspired the establishment of the Regional Sousse Observatory on School Dropouts, which exists to this day and aims to “overcome the school dropout problem by developing a network of different contributors that work in the field” and that can work with schools to achieve similar impacts.

The City Council has also made efforts to better engage youth through supporting the creation of a dedicated youth municipal committee and to involve youth representatives in existing municipal committees, such as the Cultural, Sports, and Heritage Preservation Committees. Further, the city has partnered with local NGOs such as We Love Sousse to train young people to become leaders in their communities, engages them to jointly deliver arts and cultural activities in their neighbourhoods, and to strengthen local networks of youth workers and associations.

What’s next?

Despite ongoing challenges in Tunisia in light of the dissolution of municipal councils, the city remains committed to enhancing its capacities on critical issues like migration and the prevention of hate and extremism. In order to do so, Sousse’s city officials shared they will continue their active involvement in platforms that facilitate the exchange of experiences and best practices, such as Strong Cities Network. The MENA Regional Hub will additionally support the city with implementing the new Strong Cities guides, particularly A Guide for Cities, and, where appropriate, provide other technical assistance as requested.

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