As part of the European countries’ growing efforts to collaborate with Third World countries to reduce the number of people who arrive on their shores, the European Union (EU) and Tunisia signed a pact on 16 July for a “strategic partnership” on irregular migration, economic development, and renewable energy.
The pact comes amid difficult economic, social, and political conditions in Tunisia, rising hostility toward African migrants in Sfax, and Europe’s desire to stem the flow of migrants. Under the terms of the pact, the EU agreed to provide financial and material assistance to Tunisia in exchange for a reduction in irregular migration from North Africa into Europe via the Mediterranean.
Money in Exchange for Holding Back Immigrants
The pact was signed by Tunisian President Kais Saied, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, and her Dutch counterpart, Mark Rutte. It covers a wide range of topics that can be grouped into five main categories, namely macroeconomic stability, economy and trade, the transition to green energy, inclusive relations between peoples, and finally immigration and mobility, with the latter being the most crucial aspect from the standpoint of Europe.
The agreement’s stated goal is to facilitate the return of Tunisians living illegally in Europe to their home country and tighten border control. In exchange, the EU will finance the voluntary return of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa to their home countries via Tunisia. Tunisia was not required to host other nationalities on its territory, as President Saied underscored that his country would not be used as a destination for the settlement of illegal immigrants.
In a related vein, the agreement did not detail how much money would be allocated to help the Tunisian economy, but media reports have suggested that it is more than €1 billion. According to these reports, as part of its new agreement, the EU has promised to give €785 million this year to support the Tunisian economy, including €150 million to support Tunisia’s budget deficit, €150 million for the construction of Medusa, a submarine fiber optic cable that will connect eleven Mediterranean countries, about €307 million to build the ELMED transmission line, which will connect Italy and Tunisia and allow for the trade of affordable renewable electricity, and €105 million to improve border controls, including the purchase of search and rescue boats, jeeps, radars, drones, and other types of patrol equipment.
It should be noted that while the European funding for Tunisia’s development projects will be unconditional, some of it will come in the form of loans from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which means that Tunisia will be required to repay some of the money.
On the other hand, the agreement made no mention of the €900 million in loans and other financing arrangements that the EU had promised Tunisia if it accepted a $1.9 billion loan program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF). It is also unclear whether the projects included in this agreement are part of the €900 million pledge or not.
Setting for the Migration Pact
The immigration pact between Tunisia and Europe was signed at a pivotal juncture, when a confluence of economic, social, and political factors made it necessary. Below, we describe the most crucial of these factors.
- Challenging Economic Environment
Since 2011, Tunisia has experienced a difficult economic situation, with annual inflation reaching 10 percent at the end of 2022 and an unemployment rate of more than 16 percent, with a peak of about 40 percent among those between the ages of 15 and 24. The government debt reached approximately 85 percent of the gross domestic product, while the poverty rate at the national poverty line surpassed 16.5 percent. The economic impact of the epidemic and the subsequent Russian-Ukrainian conflict on Tunisia was also severe. Foreign currency reserves have dropped below the critical ninety-day threshold, and the government is having trouble paying for some imports, leading to shortages and price hikes of essential commodities.
In parallel, Fitch recently lowered Tunisia’s credit rating from CCC+ to CCC-, citing the potential for a debt default. This occurs at a time when Tunisia is unable to reach an agreement on a new loan with the IMF, which led it to agree to a migrant deal with Europe in exchange for financial assistance in order to save its economy.
In the meantime, Tunisia’s challenging economic circumstances caused it to change from a transit country into a country of origin, as the percentage of Tunisians arriving in Italy increased from less than 4 percent in 2016 to 18 percent by 2022, making them the second-largest individual group by nationality in the country. This caused the EU to worry that Tunisia’s failing economy might encourage more people to travel across the Mediterranean.
- Increased Violence Against African Immigrants
Due to its proximity to Lampedusa, an Italian island just 130 kilometers off the coast of Tunisia, the country has long served as a major entry point for illegal immigrants seeking to enter Europe. Recently, however, anti-immigrant sentiment in Tunisia has grown louder. In a statement made in February 2023, Tunisian President Saied claimed that the influx of irregular immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa is a “source of violence and crimes” and that it is a “criminal enterprise hatched at the dawn of this century to change the demographic composition of Tunisia”. These remarks fueled violence against the estimated 21,000 African migrants living in Tunisia, and attacks against them increased in the city of Sfax, which houses the majority of immigrants from sub-Saharan African countries and serves as a major transit hub for migrants traveling to the Italian coasts. Early in July, these attacks became more severe after a Tunisian citizen was killed by immigrants, which sparked large-scale protests in Tunisia demanding their deportation. Some Tunisians accused them of crimes and blamed them for the country’s economic woes. As a result, Sub-Saharan African migrants were subjected to verbal and physical violence, such as stoning, beatings, the burning of homes, and the theft of belongings, causing fear and panic among them. The security authorities stepped in and deported thousands of immigrants from the city of Sfax, abandoning them without supplies in the desert border regions between Libya and Algeria, where they risked dying.
- European Efforts to Reduce Migration Flux
Tens of thousands of people migrate annually across the Mediterranean to Europe as a result of the challenging economic, political, and security situations that many sub-Saharan African countries face. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 170,000 irregular migrants arrived in Europe from other countries in the first half of 2023, compared to 1,417 in all of 2022. Of these, 110,000 arrived via the Mediterranean Sea through July, including 89,000 via Libya and Tunisia.
As the number of immigrants increased, the policy of European countries changed from one of open borders to one of tightening and clamping down on immigrants. In order to address this issue, Europe took a number of steps, such as tightening border controls and deportations, providing financial and logistical support to developing countries so they could host migrants, detain them, or return them (forcibly) to their countries of origin, and more, in flagrant violation of the international legal principle of non-refoulement, as well as turning a blind eye to the abuses committed against these migrants.
In accordance with the Tunisian-European Agreement, Tunisia joined these countries, following in the footsteps of Turkey in 2016 and Libya in 2017, as well as numerous other bilateral agreements between EU member states and nearby nations.
Temporary Gains and Potential Risks
The Tunisian-European agreement has some benefits because, at least temporarily, it will aid in reducing migrant flows to Europe, particularly Italy. For Tunisia, the agreement will primarily serve to support the deteriorating economy as well as confirm that the country is not diplomatically isolated as a result of the exceptional measures approved by Saied in 2021 and that it is able to maintain border control.
Several organizations, such as the IOM, Amnesty International, and the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), opposed the agreement because they believed it violated human rights standards and the principle of non-refoulement. In light of the recent waves of violence and persecution against African migrants in Tunisia, the agreement promotes more violence with European blessing, making the EU complicit in the suffering that will ensue.
While the agreement with Tunisia is significant, it should not be viewed in isolation. Rather, it should be seen as the most recent chapter in a long history of attempts by European countries to stem the flow of refugees. It also doesn’t represent a fundamental shift in how nations around the world collaborate on migration-related issues. Similar agreements have already been signed by a number of nations, including Tunisia itself, which signed an immigration agreement with Italy in 1998. This was followed by two additional agreements in 2003 and 2009, as well as one in 2011 in response to the sharp rise in illegal immigration to Italy following Ben Ali’s overthrow. What makes this agreement unique is that it is the first of its kind to be reached with the European Commission on behalf of the entire EU and not just Italy. This is to be understood in the context of the efforts made by member states of the EU to reform the common European asylum system.
In addition to the fact that the agreement requires Tunisia to accept Tunisian migrants expelled from European lands without guaranteeing that it can do the same with illegal immigrants on its soil, the amounts and capabilities specified in the agreement will not be sufficient to control the maritime borders of Tunisia, which extend along 1,500 km. Further, deals with Third World countries regarding immigration were also not always effective.
On the other hand, strengthening border controls may result in an increase in seizures, but it will not prevent people from attempting to flee. Desperate migrants will continue to seek out alternate routes, which may be longer and more hazardous.
In conclusion, European countries’ insistence on adopting the policy of refoulement of migrants can be interpreted as an attempt to avoid taking responsibility for African countries that they have, in some way or another, contributed to the suffering of their citizens’ suffering and driven them to emigrate, only to then shut the door in their faces.
Overall, migration is a complicated issue that can only be resolved by addressing its root causes, including poverty, unemployment, ignorance, civil wars, and climate change.