A damaging deal: abuses, departures from Tunisia continue following EU agreement

In mid-July, during a visit of the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Tunisia and the European Union signed a memorandum of understanding intended to reduce irregular migration from Tunisia to Europe, as well as to reinforce “economic and trade ties” between the North African country and the bloc. The European Commission’s statement called the agreement “a new chapter in relations” between the EU and Tunisia.

The deal arrived one month after the EU’s initial announcement of joint work on a partnership package amounting to more than one billion euros, including a 900-million-euro loan contingent on approval of an International Monetary Fund loan to Tunisia, which is strongly supported by the Italian government but remains contested.

The MoU between the European Commission and Tunisia commits 105 million euros of European funds to reduce irregular migration both into and out of Tunisia and is indicative of the EU’s broader aims to restrain Mediterranean migration. Speaking in Rome shortly after the signature of the agreement, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called the partnership a “blueprint for the future”, signalling the EU’s intention to advance similar accords elsewhere in the region. Cooperation discussions continue amid significant ongoing movements across the Mediterranean to Italy.

Has the agreement curbed departures from Tunisia?

An analysis published by the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), based on data from Italy’s Ministry of the Interior, shows that arrivals to Italy rose by 69% in the six weeks after the memorandum compared to the six weeks before. Given the twelve-week period of analysis stretches over the summer months, this spike following the deal cannot be explained by favorable weather conditions alone. In fact, despite the MoU, departures from Tunisia to Europe have continued to increase steadily over the summer months. Tunisia has overtaken Libya as the top country of departure represented in sea arrivals to Italy this year.

The ongoing high rates of sea arrivals to Italy could be explained by the fact that interceptions of migrant boats by Tunisian authorities do not always seem to rise proportionally to departures. After a peak in March, when an outbreak of anti-Black racist and xenophobic violence in parts of the country prompted a sharp increase in departures. July saw the lowest number of interceptions by the Tunisian coast guard recorded to date in 2023. This was followed by a return in August to the pre-agreement interception rates of May and June.  On 12 and 13 September, 7,000 migrants arrived on Lampedusa’s shores in 48 hours, marking a record of landings on the Italian island, most of them having departed from Tunisia.

These figures are in line with MMC’s research with refugees and migrants in Tunisia, where we received reports that the Tunisian coast guard is not intercepting many of the boats that are leaving, primarily from the coastal city of Sfax that remains the principal port of departure despite recent violence against migrants there.

There are several possible explanations for the recorded peaks of arrivals to Italy from Tunisia in late April and mid-July. First, the climate in Tunisia turned warmer in April this year followed by unusually cool temperatures and rain in June, meaning these peaks coincided with the first favourable weather conditions of the year and their renewal in mid-summer. Second, patterns of abuse and assault against Black migrants in Tunisia aligned with these periods. After the initial outbreak of violence in late February, many migrants spent several weeks consolidating resources and preparing for departure. In early July, violence against migrants in Sfax resurged following an altercation in which a Tunisian man died on 3 July, prompting further flight from the city.

Another possible contributing factor could be the use of migrants as a bargaining chip, as these peaks and the July dip in interceptions coincided with the Italian Interior minister’s April visit to discuss support to stop departures and the negotiations of the MoU in mid-July. If true, this would unfortunately be nothing new in migration diplomacy, as similar dynamics were already observed during past similar negotiations with Libya and Turkey, which over time proved to be harmful for migrants, ineffective, and ultimately counter-productive.

The impact of smuggling dynamics

Another related reason that could explain the increased departures is a change in the smuggling dynamics in Tunisia. So far in summer 2023 MMC has received reports of lower prices charged by smugglers to sub-Saharan African migrants for maritime journeys to Italy, compared to previous years.  Prices seem to have dropped as low as 1300 to 1500 Tunisian dinars (around 390 to 450 euros), with variations according to the individual and purported security of the journey, compared to the typical range of 3500-6000 Tunisian dinars (about 1050 to 1800 euros) during the high summer season. These lower prices may be related to the fewer interceptions mentioned above, as smugglers can charge less due to lower risk of being intercepted and returned to Tunisia.

Nevertheless, price changes and hence departures may also be connected to the nature of smuggling networks in the country. As networks in Tunisia are typically smaller and more fragmented compared to those in nearby Libya, for example, competition among smugglers is fierce and prices shift as a result. The post-pandemic economic crisis in Tunisia, exacerbated by the impact of the war in Ukraine, increased demand for smuggling services among Tunisians and non-Tunisians alike. As noted in a recent ISPI article, the multiplicity and agility of actors renders smuggling routes from Tunisia flexible and irregular departures therefore particularly difficult to control.

Abuses against refugees and migrants persist

While the MoU has not yet led to the expected reductions in arrivals toward Europe, the stark deterioration in the treatment of refugees and migrants in Tunisia motivating the departures that precipitated the deal has continued. In July, mass expulsions and deportations took place from the city of Sfax following the abovementioned attacks on migrants. Tunisian authorities have allegedly forcibly displaced hundreds of refugees and migrants to the country’s borders with Libya and Algeria, leaving them stranded in the desert without food or water. Ten days after the signature of the MoU, horrifying footage showing the bodies of sub-Saharan African migrants recovered across the Libyan border was released.

Another harmful deal

In sum, the agreement between the European Union and Tunisia seems to have had little effect on departures and interceptions at this stage. It bears noting that we are still in the early days following the deal, however, and so the effects remain to be seen in the months ahead. The European Commission has emphasized that it’s too soon to see the impact as funds have not yet been released to Tunisia.

On the other hand, the negotiations between the EU and Tunisia underway since this spring have provided diplomatic cover for Tunisian authorities to continue their escalating anti-migration rhetoric and violence. While the UN condemned the expulsions and violence that took place in July, the Director-General of the EU’s Directorate-General for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Negotiations (DG NEAR), Gert Jan Koopman, recently minimized any concerns about human rights, saying that “it is not for us to pass any judgments over a government.” In her state of the union address on 13 September, von der Leyen again highlighted the agreement with Tunisia as a template “that brings mutual benefits beyond migration,” with no mention of the violations committed against migrants by the EU and its partners.

These comments encapsulate the EU’s position, further implicating the EU in the damning compromise between the promotion of human rights standards and attempts to restrict migration, at any cost.