In mid-July, the EU finalised a much-anticipated agreement with Tunisia to cooperate on curbing a surge in migration flows to Europe’s Mediterranean shores, but international law experts and humanitarian groups warn that the €1 billion ($1.11 billion) deal could lead to severe rights violations instead of helping solve complex issues.
Under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) – signed after a crucial meeting between EU Commission head, Ursula von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and Tunisian President Kais Saied – Brussels agreed to give Tunis financial and technical support to “deter” Europe-bound migration, which has been increasingly originating from Tunisian shores.
According to the few details made public, the deal aims to prevent migrants from reaching Europe irregularly; increase returns of Tunisian citizens who have no permission to stay in Europe and facilitate repatriation from Tunisia to third countries of migrants of other nationalities.
Human rights organisations, however, said the agreement comes amid reports of escalating violence and abuses against sub-Saharan African migrants by Tunisian authorities.
This could lead to an increasingly critical situation for migrants departing from the country, replicating the problems that stemmed from similar agreements with Libya over the past few years.
“This ill-judged agreement, signed despite mounting evidence of serious human rights abuses by authorities, will result in a dangerous expansion of already failed migration policies and signals EU acceptance of increasingly repressive behaviour by Tunisia’s President and government,” Eve Geddie, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Director for Europe, said in a statement.
“At the same time, as Tunisia and the EU were preparing to sign this agreement, Tunisian authorities left hundreds of people, including children, stranded at Tunisia’s desert borders, initially without water, food or shelter,” she added, noting that the deal would make the EU “complicit in the suffering that will inevitably result.”
The Tunis Memorandum was strongly championed by Italian Premier Meloni, whose far-right government has long vowed to stop surging migration flows to Italy’s southern shores, trying to convince EU partners of the common need “to defend European borders”.
Meloni hailed the deal, suggesting it could become “a model” for future agreements with other Maghreb countries and the entire African continent.
On Sunday, the Italian Premier hosted a day long summit on migration, with the participation of leaders from about 20 Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, top EU officials and international organisations.
The initiative wanted to highlight Rome’s leading role in fighting illegal migration, while supporting development in countries of origin and transit, especially those struggling in managing wider flows.
Wrapping up the conference, Meloni stressed that the Rome summit was just the start of a long journey, based on equal cooperation and shared actions with all the main Mediterranean actors.
“This is the beginning of a process,” she said.
“We won’t have stability if there is no justice and if we don’t seek solutions to the causes of this injustice, the human tragedy of migration.”
However, human rights activists accused the Italian government – worried by the increase in arrivals from Tunisia by sea – of “useless rhetoric”.
Many saw Italy’s negotiations with Tunis as a diplomatic attempt to convince international institutions and EU partners to finance Saied’s and other similar governments, turning a blind eye to measures restricting civil rights.
Human rights violations
In recent months, Tunisia has overtaken Libya as the primary departure point in North Africa for people seeking protection in Europe.
Tunisia has traditionally been a transit route for migrants departing from North African countries, but recent conflicts and increasing instability in Libya have boosted the numbers of sub-Saharan migrants arriving in the country.
However, it is not only them who embark on the dangerous central Mediterranean crossing: Political instability, youth unemployment, rising inflation and food prices are also driving growing numbers of Tunisians to Europe.
Saied’s government fought back with a crackdown on “illegal” migrants. In a February speech, the president claimed that sub-Saharan migrants threatened the country’s identity.
The Tunisian leader has consolidated near-total power since suspending the country’s Parliament in 2021. Local authorities have investigated and, in some cases, arrested at least 72 opposition figures and others considered as Saied’s critics.
Rights activists warned that, by focusing their policies and funding on containment and border control, rather than ensuring safe and legal routes for those trying to cross borders, EU leaders were, once again, risking disregarding key human rights standards.
“The agreement with Tunisia is certainly operational, but this doesn’t mean it will have the success hoped for by the EU Commission and by the Italian and Dutch governments,” Christopher Hein, professor of policy on migration and asylum at Rome’s LUISS University, told Anadolu.
“The first question to ask is: Why was this agreement signed now, when we have a dictatorial regime in Tunisia, with a worrying persecution of opponents, including journalists, the ban on Parliament and all the powers concentrated with the President?”
Analysts also pointed out several “criticalities” in the agreement that could potentially lead to conflicts with international laws and EU regulations protecting migrants’ rights.
“From the few details we have as of now, I can predict potential breaches of the Geneva Convention for Human Rights, possible violations of EU directives on migration and even a conflict with the Italian Constitution, for Italy’s part,” said Paolo Iafrate, migration law professor at Rome’s Tor Vergata University.
NGOs active in the Mediterranean also noted that the agreement was negotiated without any real input from civil society, while the press conference held by Tunisian and EU leaders after the meeting did not even include journalists.
Under the MoU, the EU will partner with Tunisia on border management, including providing radars, ships and other equipment to the Tunisian Coast Guard, to counter people smuggling. They also plan to cooperate on expanding legal pathways to Europe, despite most EU states’ failure to fulfil their pledges to bring people to safety through existing routes.
In June, von der Leyen offered Tunisia €105 million to curb undocumented migration and €150 million in immediate support, along with a long-term loan of €900 million.
The latter, though, would be conditional on approving a loan from the International Monetary Fund.
From its side, Tunisia has made clear it does not plan to become a “reception centre” for returns of sub-Saharan migrants from Italy or any other country in Europe. This means that Tunis will take back only its citizens who have made irregular entry to the EU.
“Do the EU and Italy really want to replicate the model of the past agreements with Libya?” Hein asked.
“It’s not just a matter of whether or not it will be successful … It is a concrete act of externalisation of the responsibilities of the European Union, which is not acceptable.”
According to EU Commission data, at least 45,000 people have arrived in Europe from Tunisia since the start of 2023, marking a significant increase in arrivals on these routes in previous years.
The Tunisian Coast Guard intercepted more than 14,000 people trying to reach Europe in the first three months of 2023 – more than five times the number of those who attempted the trip the same time last year.
Earlier in July, hundreds of people from sub-Saharan African countries were forced from the coastal city of Sfax by Tunisian security forces, and left stranded in a desolate desert area, without food, water or shelter, human rights groups reported.
The Tunisian President denied the allegations and hit back at NGOs, saying they were spreading “fake news”.
In the first half of 2023, more than 600 people have also been reported dead or missing off the Tunisian coast.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is now calling on Brussels to make sure that any migration partnerships with third countries are conditional on upholding fundamental rights.
“With the first quarter of 2023 the deadliest for migrants in the Central Mediterranean since 2017, it is also critical that the EU works to expand safe routes to protection, bolster search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and puts people – not borders – at the heart of continued negotiations as part of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum,” the IRC said in a recent statement.
“The latest agreement with Tunisia entails great risk of abuse, violence and exploitation, driving migrants and refugees onto even more dangerous routes in search of safety. The protection of vulnerable people must not be sacrificed in the name of deterrence. This has been shown both ineffective and contrary to the most basic humanitarian principles,” said Harlem Desir, IRC’s senior Vice-President for Europe.
Analysts agreed that the Rome migration summit could mark the start of a more effective model of cooperation which should, however, be based on concrete policies aimed at supporting the fragile economies of Mediterranean countries of origin and transit.
“It’s in our common interest to face and solve issues that affect our neighbours and all of us. But charity, based on offering money, is not enough: we need constant actions over time,” said Francesca Maria Corrao, an expert in Arabic and Mediterranean studies.
“Addressing the migration problem means providing training, jobs and social support in countries like Tunisia, otherwise it becomes an illusion to talk about democracy.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.