The European Union on Sunday entered into a “strategic partnership” on the migration issue with Tunisia to curb the illegal crossings that are on the rise from the country’s shores. An agreement presented as a “model” by the head of the Italian government Giorgia Meloni, but considered a setback by human rights associations.
It is “a complete strategic partnership”, which EU leaders welcome. On Sunday 16 July, the EU and Tunisia reached an agreement to combat illegal immigration to Europe, which is booming from the North African country.
This “memorandum of agreement” includes direct budget support of €150 million in 2023 to Tunisia, which is facing a serious economic crisis and whose debt has reached 80% of GDP, for a total framework that could reach up to €900 million.
This agreement, signed between the 27 and Tunisia, is based on five pillars, which are “macroeconomic stability, trade and investment, green energy transition, rapprochement between people and migration and mobility”.
For the head of the Italian government, Giorgia Meloni, this partnership, which deals with “the migration crisis in an integrated way (…) can be considered a model for establishing new relations with North Africa”.
Several NGOs, on the contrary, believe that this is a very worrying signal in the current Tunisian context, which is likely to further fuel the resurgence of violence that sub-Saharan exiles are victims of.
Hotspot for illegal immigration
For the European Union, this agreement with Tunisia is primarily a response to an economic emergency. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), around 50,000 people arrived illegally in Italy by boat in the first five months of 2023, compared to 19,000 in the same period in 2022. More than half of them left Tunisia.
“This year, the country has overtaken Libya, which until now has been the leading country for departures to Europe”, emphasizes Myriam Tixier, project manager of the Cimade association, which helps migrants.
A situation that is due to the tightening of the Libyan authorities’ policy towards migrants, but also the spread of smugglers in Tunisia, especially in the city of Sfax, which is now considered the center of illegal immigration in the region, say local authorities.
The growing presence of migrants in the port city has created strong tensions with the local population for several months. These have degenerated since the death of a Tunisian during an argument with sub-Saharan residents in early July, which resulted in a real hunt for migrants.
A global partnership on behalf of the 27
The signed agreement aims to “strengthen cooperation to combat and reduce irregular migration flows and save human lives”. Because the strong increase in departures from the Tunisian coast goes hand in hand with an increase in shipwrecks. In the first quarter of 2023, there was thus the highest number of deaths at sea since 2017, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
To combat this scourge, the EU relies on a “holistic” (global) approach, which includes “developing legal channels of migration”, in other words, selective immigration, while promoting “sustainable development” in the “zones of disadvantaged people with high migration potential” to reduce illegal immigration. Finally, emphasis is placed on the fight against “criminal networks of smugglers” with the strengthening of controls, patrols and investigative means with a view to dismantling these networks.
This agreement, which according to Giorgia Meloni must serve as a basis for ongoing negotiations with other countries in the region, is part of the overall reform of the European migration and asylum policy, which has been underway since autumn 2020.
“The agreement with Tunisia is a kind of trial balloon,” stresses Caroline de Camaret, specialist in European issues at . each country concerned, including as many parameters as possible in the negotiations.
This pact includes measures specifically aimed at Tunisian youth – in particular through a student exchange program as well as training within the EU – but also support for the tourism industry or even the development of renewable energy.
While the agreement with Tunisia is supposed to represent the policy of the 27, many observers have wondered about the choice of representatives chosen to accompany Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during this trip to Tunisia: the leader of the far-right Italian Giorgia Meloni and Dutch Mark Rutte, whose hard line on family reunification has blasted the government.
For her part, Human Rights Watch researcher Lauren Seibert warned about the unfortunate context of this visit, which was planned even though migrants had been forcibly expelled at the Libyan border.
“The agreement will benefit both the EU and the Tunisian people,” the Dutch prime minister said on Sunday, recalling that the EU is Tunisia’s leading trading partner and its leading investor. He also welcomed “agreements to disrupt the business models of ‘smugglers’ and people smugglers, to strengthen border controls and improve registration and returns”.
“Again, the European Union uses economic negotiations to get a state to cooperate on the immigration aspect. Contrary to what has been said, this is not a new appearance” condemns Myriam Tixier. “We know that the reasons for illegal immigration are complex, they can relate to the lack of opportunities, but also to sexual orientation, the search for family ties, issues of freedom of expression… The financial support promised by the EU will not solve this problem . problem”, she analysed.
The Cimade project manager also fears that this support from the EU, amid a controversy over the treatment of migrants in Tunisia, will reinforce the policies of President Kaïs Saïed, who has repeatedly described them as a threat to the country.
“It is certain that the EU has found a very good ear in Tunisia. The president is trying by all means to get the exiles to leave. There are strong fears that this agreement will further worsen the situation of migrants who are already persecuted in an absolutely scandalous way in the country”.
In the text of the agreement, Tunisia confirms its position of not being “a country of settlement for irregular migrants”. She pledges to fight “against criminal networks of smugglers” while defending an approach “based on respect for human rights”.