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Asylum-seekers: Is EU-Tunisia like UK-Rwanda?

April 26, 2024

While Tunisia is a trusted ally in curbing migration to Europe, human rights observers don't consider it a "safe" place for migrants.

Two women in brightly colored safety vests, one holding a photo and the other a painting, both depicting migrants in boats at sea
Sub-Saharan migrants are not welcome in Tunisia, and President Kais Saied has rejected a Tunisian 'Rwanda plan' for the countryImage: Fathi Nasri/AFP/Getty Images

In theory, Tunisia could be a prime location for housing asylum-seekers who enter the European Union by irregular means.

Such a model could replicate the UK's recent "Rwanda plan" that aims to transfer the asylum-seekers who try to enter the UK "illegally" to Africa.

In practice, however, this is unlikely to happen in Tunisia, even though its shores have long turned into popular departure points for aspiring migrants from North African and sub-Saharan countries en route to Europe.

Earlier in April, Tunisian President Kais Saied reiterated during a national security meeting that Tunisia "will become neither a center nor a crossing point" for sub-Saharan migrants. Nor, he said, would it accept migrants "deported from Europe."

Though it isn't the first time Saied has made such statements, this time, and despite the obvious contradiction — namely that the European Union and Italy in particular are actively seeking to limit migration from Tunisia, while Tunisia is clear about not wanting to host more departing or returning migrants — Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni strongly supported him in rejecting what has been referred to as a Tunisian "Rwanda plan."

In particular, her backing came just after agreeing to three new accords with Tunisia as part of Italy's "Mattei Plan" for Africa — a €105 million ($111.7 million), continent-wide strategy aimed at growing economic opportunities and preventing migration to Europe.

These agreements were signed some eight months after the EU offered Tunisia a "partnership program" worth more than €1 billion in financial support and which also included €105 million to curb irregular migration.

This pragmatic partnership has already shown success in terms of driving down migration numbers.

According to latest data by the UN refugee agency UNHCR, as of April 15, 2024, Tunisia's border patrol forces had intercepted roughly 21,000 migrants before they could reach European waters.

In turn, less than half as many migrants — around 16,000 people who mainly departed from Tunisia and to a lesser extent Libya and Algeria — arrived in Italy during this time compared to the same period in 2023.

Sub-Saharan migrants trying to cross to Italy are intercepted and blocked by the Tunisian National Guard off the coast of Sfax in Tunisia.
The number of people who made it across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy has been halved since April 2023Image: Hasan Mrad/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Tighter controls mean more returned migrants

"The EU deal with Tunisia is designed to keep migrants and refugees out of the EU, not Tunisia itself," Kelly Petillo, program manager for the Middle East and North Africa at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Furthermore, none of the agreements address the fact that Tunisia cannot be considered a "safe country" since President Saied has not only been dismantling most democratic institutions there following a far-reaching power grab in July 2021, but has also been cracking down on migrants.

"The accords with the EU and Italy even undermine the rights of refugees and migrants," Petillo added.

Salsabil Chellali, Tunisia director at the NGO Human Rights Watch, strongly agrees.

"Today in Tunisia, migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees face serious abuses committed by the security forces, including the National Guard and the coast guard during interception at sea, and, once people are returned, they continue to face mistreatment, arbitrary arrests, detention and collective expulsion," said Chellali.

However, she also believes the current situation is not the result of Saied's tough on migrants policies alone. 

"It is also linked to the EU externalization policy, given that the EU continues to fund migration control in Tunisia at the expense of human rights and supposed EU values," she said.

Sub-Saharan migrants in an irregular situation warm themselves around a campfire in front of the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Tunis
Tunisia lacks any official asylum laws and the UN refugee agency is slow to process applications, leaving thousands of migrants in limboImage: Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Tunisia also lacks national asylum laws and even an asylum system that could grant legal status or allow people to work, said Lauren Seibert, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"While the UN Refugee Agency, or UNHCR, is able to register asylum-seekers and refugees in Tunisia, there is inadequate humanitarian support and many are homeless and destitute," she said. "Even registered refugees have difficulty accessing work and public services."

Currently, around 12,000 refugees and asylum-seekers are registered with UNHCR in Tunisia.

"Meanwhile, Ms. Meloni is fully aware that up to 80,000 sub-Saharan migrants are waiting in the olive plantations south of Sfax for better weather," said Heike Löschmann, director of the Tunis Office of the German Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The situation in Al Jidariyah, a region further south, is also becoming particularly dire, said Mustafa Abdel Kabir, the head of the Tunisian Observatory for Human Rights.

"The area is remote and lacks living and working facilities, but his week, hundreds of refugees were brought here and left alone," he told DW.

A sub-Saharan migrant sleeps amid trash on the bare ground in Sfax as other migrants look on
An ongoing crackdown on sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia, along with increasingly authoritarian rule by President Saied, makes the country far from safe for migrants Image: Hasan Mrad/ZUMA Wire/IMAGO

Incentives for Tunisian voters

Given Tunisia's upcoming presidential election in October and the public sentiment against migrants in the country, it's not likely that Saied will put any emphasis on improving conditions for migrants anytime soon.

Instead, he will no doubt address the country's economic crisis and seek to appease the population.

"From Tunisia's perspective, bilateral agreements and collaborations must adequately reflect and promote national interests in a way that is effective for the public," said Uta Staschewski, who leads the Tunis office of the German Hanns Seidel Foundation.

Therefore, one part of Prime Minister Meloni's new accord — in which Italy will grant 12,000 residency permits to skilled Tunisians over the next three years in an effort to foster regular migration — will certainly be highlighted in the coming months.

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Edited by: Jon Shelton

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa