30th Sep 2023

EU commission praises autocrat Tunisia for sea rescues

  • Olivér Várhelyi (l), EU commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, signed the deal in Tunis in July (Photo: European Union, 2023)
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The European Commission has evoked sea rescues carried out by the Tunisian coast guard as evidence that a recent controversial deal with Tunis is helping migrants and others fleeing the country.

"Based on our cooperation this year, there has been already almost 24,000 interceptions made by the coast guard of Tunisia," said Olivér Várhelyi, EU commissioner overseeing countries neighbouring the European Union.

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He said this compares to around 9,300 interceptions last year, noting that almost 50,000 people "have been saved through this cooperation" over the past nine months.

The statements were made on Tuesday (12 September) during a European Parliament plenary debate in Strasbourg and come amid a widespread crackdown on sub-Saharan Africans and others in Tunisia by an increasingly autocrat government.

Only days after the €1bn memorandum of understanding was signed by Várhelyi in Tunis on 16 July, the bodies of a mother and her six-year-old daughter were found in the Tunisian desert.

Both had reportedly died of thirst after being forced across the border to Libya on foot without water and in the blazing heat. Another 27 were found dead in Libyan territory near the Tunisian border in early August.

Tunisia, under the strong-arm presidential leadership of Kais Saied, has been rounding up black migrants from coastal cities and sending them into the deserts near the Algerian and Libyan borders.

Várhelyi said that the EU has since provided immediate support such as water and hygiene kits to asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in the country.

But the EU commission is also shoring up Tunisian border controls with €105m in funding, including a coastal surveillance system, as well as refitting and delivering patrol vessels.

Business model of smugglers

Várhelyi's stated motive is to save lives at sea and break the business model of smugglers. The European Commission has made similar statements for a decade.

In 2015, the Brussels-executive declared "a war on smugglers" and in 2017, they committed to increasing cooperation with Libya and to tackling migrant smuggling. Along with Italy, they then signed a memorandum of understanding with Libya.

The deal made similar promises to one currently signed with Tunisia; secure borders, eliminate irregular migration, stop trafficking, and boost development. Some 11,500 have since died or gone missing on the Central Mediterranean route, according to the International Organisation for Migration.

A report by the United Nations recently accused the Libyan authorities dealing with migration of possible crimes against humanity. They also accused the EU of colluding with Libyan smugglers, a charge it denies.

"Paying authoritarian regimes to stop people coming to Europe is not the way forward, but it seems the model the European Commission wants to adopt. This amounts to pushbacks through proxies," said Swedish left MEP, Malin Bjork.

Arrivals surge compared to last year

In Tunisia, civil rights defenders and critics say the latest crackdown has only intensified departures of migrants as well as Tunisians themselves.

Some 116,000 have collectively so far landed on Italian shores this year, including over 10,000 Tunisians, according to figures from the Italian ministry of interior. This compares to just under 64,000 over the same period last year.

Last month, the EU's border guard Frontex said the Central Mediterranean route was the highest on record since 2017.

"The deal has only led to more repression, more deaths and even more migration," said Dutch Green MEP, Tineke Strik at the plenary debate.

Similar comments were made by Dutch liberal MEP, Sophie In't Veld, who said the deal had no legal basis.

"It has the legal status of a beer coaster and was concluded by a fantasy body called Team Europe," she said.

Udo Bullman, a German socialist and chair of the European Parliament's human rights committee, also criticised the deal.

He asked why it was not made in the framework of a pre-existing agreement with Tunisia that binds the EU to protect human rights. "Is that a coincidence?," he asked Várhelyi.

But MEPs on the far-right and centre-right, as well as other liberals, largely support the Tunisian deal. Last month, Manfred Weber, who leads the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) met with president Said in an effort to further ease migrant departures.

Libyan militia cash in on EU's anti-smuggling strategy

More people in Libya are being inducted into slavery as people-traffickers try to monetise their investment by selling them. A senior UN refugee agency official described it as an unintended side effect of the reduction of migrant boat departures.

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