2nd Oct 2023


EU concern on migration from Tunisia was years in the making

  • Tunisia president Kaïs Saïed (l) with European Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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EU efforts to crack down on irregular migration from Tunisia began almost 10 years ago. So the latest agreement with Tunisia's autocratic leader, president Kais Saied, does not mean the EU is only now starting to take an interest in the north African state.

In early 2014, it signed a so-called mobility partnership with Tunisia that made surprisingly similar promises to those highlighted in the memorandum of understanding signed only last week.

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And back then it followed a 10-fold increase of arrivals of irregular migrants on the southern coasts of the European Union, when compared to the previous year. In the span of a few months in 2014, some 35,000 people had landed in Italy from north Africa.

One official, in a briefing ahead of a March 2014 justice and home affairs session, blamed search-and-rescue operations for luring people to take the perilous journey.

The comment came only months after some 366 migrants lost their lives off the Italian island of Lampedusa, a tragedy that shocked most of Europe and ushered in ever more border surveillance.

But the 2014 deal also sought to ease Tunisian access to jobs and education in the EU, including by speeding up visas. It promised better cooperation to prevent human trafficking and the smuggling of migrants, as well as on security.

And like the latest turmoil hitting Tunisia, a massive youth unemployment throughout post-Arab Spring Middle East countries spooked the EU into action. In 2013, the EU described it "as social time bomb" and declared that some 50 million jobs were needed in the region.

Taskforces were formed, strategies adopted, communications published and budgets announced for multiple initiatives.

This included €800,000 for seminars, workshops and an EU-Tunisian web platform on migration.

Later budgets rolled out some €93.5m from the EU's Trust Fund for Africa that sought to deal with Tunisia's migration issues, including by shoring up its borders.

In 2021-22, the EU earmarked another €35m for Tunisian border management.

More recently, in late June 2023, it adopted a €279m regional fund to tackle smugglers, tighten borders, and to send stranded sub-Saharan Africans back to their home countries.

But Tunisia is not the only one with a long history of capturing EU interest when it comes to migration.

In Africa, it remains active on migration in Algeria, Cabo Verde, Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Nigeria, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Senegal.

However, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has now described the latest deal with Tunisia as a "blueprint for similar partnerships in the future."

Possible candidates include Morocco and Egypt.

A flurry of activity and high level meetings have already taken place in Egypt, where von der Leyen met with the country's dictator president Al Sisi in June of last year.

This was followed by an October visit from EU enlargement commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, who signed the first phase of an €80m border management programme to stop Egyptians from leaving towards Italy via Libya.

Várhelyi's visit was soon followed by European Commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas and then last month by EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell.

Von der Leyen had also gone to Morocco in February of last year, followed by Várhelyi, then EU commissioner Ylva Johansson. Borrell also went earlier this year, as did Várhelyi.


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