8th Dec 2023

EU fears Tunisia turmoil will spark migrant boat departures

  • Josep Borrell: 'If Tunisia collapses economically or socially then we will be in a situation where new flows of migrants will come to Europe.' (Photo: European Union)
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The potential economic collapse of Tunisia has startled EU decision-makers amid fears that more migrants may leave on boats towards Europe.

"If Tunisia collapses economically or socially then we will be in a situation where new flows of migrants will come to Europe," Josep Borrell, the EU's foreign policy chief, told reporters on Monday (20 March).

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Pressure from Italy is mounting for the International Monetary Fund to release an almost €2bn loan to Tunis despite national authorities stalling for months under president Kais Saied.

"We can't support a country which can't sign an agreement with the International Monetary Fund," said Borrell.

But with Tunisia recently surpassing Libya in the number of departures of boats with migrants heading towards Italy, the issue has gripped the EU leadership.

In a letter ahead of the EU summit later this week in Brussels, European Commission president Von der Leyen says they are ready to mobilise an additional €110m for North Africa to keep people from risking their lives by taking boats towards Europe.

She said this comes ontop of €208m already announced for 2023 and is earmarked for "voluntary return, anti-smuggling cooperation, equipment, and training."

Although no date has been set, von der Leyen said Ylva Johansson, along with Italian and French ministers, will also soon go to Tunisia.

The EU wants anti-smuggling operational partnerships in both Egypt and Tunisia, deals that will likely see the EU beef up their police and security apparatus.

Although details of those plans remain scant, an internal EU document on migrant smuggling from last December sets out operational plans for Italy to bolster investigations primarily with Egypt, Libya and Tunisia.

That includes real-time information exchange and intelligence sharing, along with the EU's police agency Europol and Eurojust, the EU agency on judicial co-operation.

Asylum for containment

Thomas Spijkerboer, a professor of migration law at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, says such plans are easier to pass in countries where democracy is under threat or non-existant.

"This may be a crucial element in Tunisia," he said.

Tunisia's president had in late February launched a rant against sub-Saharan Africans, labelling them as agents seeking to change an Arab demographic.

This came amid a crackdown on critics and opposition figures, including human rights groups.

Spijkerboer, along with a handful of other researchers, had probed into EU asylum policies and their impact in Tunisia, Niger, Serbia and Turkey.

Among the main findings in their 40-page report is that authorities in all four refuse to implement effective asylum systems.

"They are aware that these will serve as containment policies," he said.

Tunisia has also refused to adopt its asylum act, drafted in part by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) along with financial support from the EU.

Spijkerboer says Tunis fears its adoption would allow Europe to designate Tunisia as a safe third country and then pressure them into accepting to take back people rescued in Mediterranean.

"Tunisia doesn't want to become a hotspot," he said.

The hotspot is an EU concept that saw sprawling ghetto-like encampments on the Greek islands.

EU eyes job deal with Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia

The European Commission wants to set up so-called "talent partnerships" with foreign states to help fill the labour gaps in the EU — on the condition they help prevent irregular migration.

No details on new EU aid to curb migrants from Tunisia

The European Commission on Monday (12 June) said it cannot yet release details of €105m to prevent migrants from leaving Tunisia. But similar past proposals for Tunisia in the past may offer some clues.

Tensions and a murder at Tunisia's departure port for Lampedusa

Sfax, Tunisia's second-largest city, has become a hub for sub-Saharan migrants because it is the closest departure point for Europe, just 190km from the Italian island of Lampedusa. That's created tension with locals, who often view them as adversaries.

Tunisia abusing African migrants, says leading NGO

Tunisian security forces have been committing serious abuses against black African migrants, says leading NGO Human Rights Watch. The findings comes against the backdrop of a EU-Tunisia deal to stem migration flows.

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