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Tunisia's new migration policy signed with the European Union will negatively impact migrants and refugees, possibly permitting repressive practices.
Tunisia has recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the European Union to implement the “comprehensive partnership package,” foreshadowing dire consequences for migrants seeking passage to Europe.
According to a statement issued by the Tunisian government, the agreement focuses on several aspects such as migration, economy, agriculture, trade, energy and digital transformation. This partnership agreement comes at a time of severe economic crisis in Tunisia and when the EU is making efforts to curb the flow of migrants by all means necessary.
The signed agreement will negatively impact migrants and refugees, possibly permitting repressive practices, increased suffering, inhumane conditions and a lack of protection and security.
Tunisian President Kais Saied signed the agreement without consulting anyone. Observers believe that the signing of the agreement was a totalitarian exercise eliminating all democratic practices. Since 2021, Saied has consolidated his control over power in Tunisia significantly.
Prominent Tunisian parties, organisations and personalities warned against the agreement prior to its signing. A joint statement was issued by independent organisations and parties, such as the Soumoud Coalition, the National Observatory for the Defense of the Civil Character of the State (ONDCE), the leftist Parti Socialiste and the liberal Afek Tounes. According to the statement, the agreement is “exchanging the country’s economic and social situation for a package of economic proposals.”
“We reject any agreement between Tunisia and the EU that would exploit the difficult economic and social situation as a means of pressure to propose a humiliating package in exchange for setting up camps for sub-Saharan refugees on Tunisian soil and the return of Tunisians who entered Europe illegally,” the statement added.
The statement requested the government to reveal “the details of the negotiations” and to “inform the public of the agreements it intends to sign in the name of the Tunisian state.” According to the statement, “addressing the issue of illegal migration is a human rights issue and cannot be dealt with by adopting racist security measures.”
Before the agreement was signed, Mehdi Mabrouk, the former minister of culture, said that it adopts “a reductionist and security-minded approach, aimed only at abruptly curbing migration in a way that can be described as violent.”
President Saied himself confirmed the pessimistic expectations in a statement he made on 21 February 2023, which many considered his statement “hateful, racist and xenophobic.”
Saied said, “A nefarious scheme has been in motion since the turn of the century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia.” He added, “Some parties received funds in the aftermath of 2011 to settle illegal migrants from sub-Saharan Africa in Tunisia. These waves of illegal migrants aim to make Tunisia purely African with no affiliation to its Arab and Islamic roots.”
In his statement, the Tunisian president stressed “the need to put a quick end to this phenomenon, especially since the hordes of sub-Saharan illegal migrants are spreading crime and violence, even though their very existence is criminalised by law.”
In Saied’s statement, the EU found an opportunity to create policies with the Tunisian government that can prevent illegal migration.
Mabrouk said the Tunisian president shares his xenophobic views with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, among other European heads of state. He noted that “turning Europe into a fortress does not make the Mediterranean a space for exchange and mutual aid but rather a cemetery.”
Meloni visited Tunisia several times to finalise the agreement as part of her policy to outsource EU border management and combat the growing number of refugees and illegal immigrants travelling to Italy.
On the other hand, Saied considered the agreement a chance to obtain much-needed economic gains, enabling him to tackle the challenges of low domestic production and the state’s budget deficit. The agreement also presented a fresh opportunity for Saied to engage in negotiations, especially following his previous disagreement with The International Monetary Fund (IMF) over loan terms.
Hatem al-Maliki, a politician and former MP, attributed Saied’s rush to sign an agreement with the EU to an urge to “achieve domestic victories.” Al-Maliki stated, “Europe negotiates what benefits it the most.” He added, “The alt-right leads these negotiations, and its focus on the migration issue is obvious. Of course, the alt-right does not care about freedom and human rights in Tunisia.”
According to al-Maliki, the agreement between Tunisia and the EU “lacks any political clauses because Europe knows how to set its priorities. High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell echoed this sentiment months ago when he predicted the collapse of Tunisia would have “major repercussions for Europe and Tunisia would be unable to protect its borders during the turmoil.” Al-Maliki added, “Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s last concern is freedom and human rights; they just want to deport and prevent illegal migrants.”
Wissam Essghaier, the spokesman for the Tunisian Republican Party, was not surprised that “the issue of freedom is not mentioned in the agreement because Europe aims to serve its interests and the interest of its peoples, even if it comes at the expense of third world countries.”
On the other hand, a report by Patrick Wintour, published by The Guardian, criticises the EU for “whitewashing” the Tunisian president. According to Wintour, “The children of prominent jailed Tunisian judges and politicians have accused the European Union of betraying its values by whitewashing the regime of President Kais Saied in the vain hope that he can stem the flow of migrants to Europe.”
Despite Saied’s systemic attack on democracy, the EU has given Tunisia one billion euros in financial aid.
In the same article, Kaouther Ferjani, daughter of political prisoner Said Ferjani, said that the values of democracy and human rights are nowhere to be found when it comes to Tunisia. She also said the aid would likely be spent on arming security forces and those in service of Kais Saied, not to prevent migrants from entering Europe.
After the agreement with Tunisia, European officials indicated that the EU seeks to establish agreements in the same vein with Egypt and Morocco. Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, aimed for the partnership with Tunisia to serve as a model for future agreements with countries in the region.
The EU would therefore benefit from reducing the number of illegal migrants coming from Tunisia, giving the EU the time and opportunity to tackle other points of departure, such as Morocco, Libya and Turkey.
All of this confirms what policy the EU prioritises. Instead of solving refugees’ problems or supporting their countries to commit to a democratic process that supports human rights, the EU supports authoritarian regimes.
The EU provides political and economic support to dictatorships as long as it can benefit from them. Thus, the EU contributes to the region’s decline in political reform and the observance of human rights. Its support for Saied’s regime cannot be seen as merely economic as it encourages the regime to take on a heavy-handed approach with the opposition.
Human Rights Watch denounced this type of agreement with countries in the Middle East and North Africa. They claim that these agreements perpetuate dictatorships and embolden repressive rulers. These regimes are now able to “brag about warmer relations with European partners while claiming credit for securing financial support for their failing economies,” the organisation said.
Several Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) criticised the agreement with the “cruel dictator.” They believe the agreement contradicts the core values of the EU and will reinforce Tunisia’s continuous democratic backsliding. MEP Birgit Sippel said, “We are now again financing an autocrat without political, democratic scrutiny here in the house. This will not be a solution. It will strengthen an autocrat in Tunisia.”
Migrants and Refugees: The Forever Victims
The foundation of the Tunisian-European agreement is to reduce illegal migration, regardless of by what means. According to Najiba Ben Hassine, a Tunisian university professor of legal and political sciences and EU-Maghreb relations, the agreement aims to “deter and suppress illegal immigration.” Ben Hassine added, “The rest only gives the illusion that EU-Maghreb relations are comprehensive and strategic and go beyond the issue of migration and their own security.”
The agreement has been criticised by Tunisian and international human rights and humanitarian organisations, especially since it targets illegal migrants. Reports suggest they suffer “harassment from the Tunisian authorities, particularly black people from Central Africa.”
According to Human Rights Watch, Tunisian police, army and national guard, including the coast guard, were involved in these abuses: “Documented abuses include beatings, use of excessive force, some cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, collective expulsions, dangerous actions at sea, forced evictions, and theft of money and belongings.”
The organisation also believes the deal “runs in the complete opposite direction of what a human rights-based approach to migration and refugees should look like. It shows that Europe has learned nothing from its complicity in the horrendous abuses of migrants in Libya, and the intention to replicate the deal elsewhere in the region, notably with Egypt and Morocco, further testifies to that.”
“Tunisian authorities have abused black African foreigners, fueled racist and xenophobic attitudes and forcibly returned people fleeing by boat who risk serious harm in Tunisia,” said Lauren Seibert, a researcher in the Refugee and Migrant Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “By funding security forces who commit abuses during migration control, the EU shares responsibility for the suffering of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia.”
These documented repressive practices confirm that refugees and migrants are victims of agreements that do not take them into account. Neither this Agreement nor others will stop illegal migration to Europe. Migrants lack other viable options, as the Gulf and Turkey do not receive refugees and migrants, even though most are from Arab and Muslim countries.
Agreements of this kind do not change the reality in these countries. Migrants and refugees will remain trapped in a vicious cycle, seeking ways to reach the European continent to acquire their fundamental rights and freedoms.