On 10 January 2023, Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Antonio Tajani stated that he had asked the Tunisian government for a strong commitment to combating irregular migration, and encouraged a greater number of repatriations, in a phone call to his Tunisian counterpart Othman Jerandi.
It was as if he was signaling the following: “You protect our borders so that we do not transgress your boundaries! We do not interfere in your management of political power. You protect our borders so that we recognize your regime, be it by turning a blind eye to your authoritarianism or by actively supporting it.”
Today, the authorities in Tunisia’s proposal to EU governments in the north, offering to manage migration in exchange for silence regarding how they rule the country.
Tunisia has agreed to stringent measures for obtaining travel visas, indicating its compliance with legal migration policies, and consented to the use of security measures to prevent illegal migration by land, air, and sea, effectively guarding Europe’s border. By accepting deportees, Tunisia has also permitted the expansion of European borders into the country. This approach suggests that Tunisia's migration response is largely influenced by European policies aimed at managing migration flows, ultimately resulting in a de facto separation wall between the southern Mediterranean and its south.
The EU governments and Tunisia have agreed upon a clear policy for managing migration, shaped by the electoral appeal of parties in countries such as Italy and France, which are closely linked to immigration policies. Furthermore, the survival and stability of political regimes in Tunisia, regardless of their democratic or autocratic nature, depend on their adherence to European migration policies. Compliance with these policies also determines their eligibility to receive European support. This policy extends from countries of departure through countries of deportation and ultimately concludes with countries accepting the return of deportees.
The present strategy for managing migration constitutes a vicious cycle that violates individual and collective rights, as well as international human rights agreements, and runs counter to common sense and rationality.
People migrate in pursuit of better economic, social, and security conditions. However, the fragile situations prevalent in southern countries are largely attributed to policies imposed by northern countries. Therefore, addressing the issue primarily requires political, economic, and social solutions, rather than relying on security measures. The persistent use of security measures will only exacerbate the push factors that drive people to migrate from the southern Mediterranean and sub-Saharan regions.
Although this assessment may be reasonable to researchers and human rights advocates who acknowledge the critical relationship between global security and the protection of human rights, it may not accurately reflect the views of most ruling regimes.
Over the past few decades, many ruling regimes have been prioritizing their policies at the expense of the fundamental rights of the majority of citizens. This approach has been adopted to benefit a ruling minority that controls all the resources and seeks to accumulate immense wealth in a particular part of the world.
Is there an implicit agreement between regimes in the northern and southern Mediterranean regions to exercise full control over all forms of migration, using a "security" approach that disregards human rights, the right to a decent life, work, and movement? Does this approach not ignore the rights to a decent standard of living, work, and movement, and the fundamental right to life that underpins all other rights?
The answer is affirmative. The agreement is manifest in the present reality of migration between the northern and southern Mediterranean coasts. Discriminatory and racist policies have resulted in a form of apartheid that is enforced by battleships, detention centers, unissued visas, closed embassies, and uncooperative governments.
However, due to the difficulty of accessing the primary data, these questions were difficult to answer and forced this study to trace everything that Tunisian authorities neglected to withhold. Indeed, unlike in Europe, there are no official bodies in Tunisia that researchers can address to discuss policies. Therefore, throughout this paper, we looked for the details and data that the Euro-Tunisian authorities failed to conceal. Perhaps the first policy to discuss before the policy of expansion of European borders is that of obfuscating information related to how the authorities, from both sides of the Mediterranean, manage the migration issue.
1. The Reality on the Ground
The Tunisian government has not entirely fulfilled its obligations under the 1951 Geneva Convention and its revised 1967 protocol concerning refugees and asylum-seekers.
Despite the worsening humanitarian crisis, the UNHCR has made little effort to engage in dialogue or discussions with refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia. Rather, the UN agency has adopted a closed-door policy and issued statements that are provocative and dismissive towards individuals seeking asylum.
The UNHCR’s performance, particularly in the Medenine governorate, has been marked by insufficient support for refugees and asylum-seekers, slow processing of cases, and limited access to essential services such as healthcare, education, legal assistance, and financial, psychological, and social aid. These shortcomings have only served to heighten the vulnerability of refugees and asylum-seekers, particularly women and children, and intensify their already precarious circumstances.
This appears to be done with the purpose to isolate and expel immigrants while fostering a common belief among those who think of migrating that the conditions are unfavorable, that they are unwelcome, and that they will face significant difficulties before their forced deportation or voluntarily return to their home countries.
The following depicts the reality of immigration in Tunisia and highlights how the country has shifted from being a crossing point for migrants to a detention center. The "security" policy aimed at decreasing irregular migration has, in reality, intensified it.
The Mediterranean’s Transformation into a “Sea Cemetry”: The Outcome of Securitizing Migration
During the 1990s, immigration underwent significant changes following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the rise of neoliberalism. This period saw the emergence of a privilege-based approach to immigration, where visas became a requirement to access most countries. The underlying model, which later shaped immigration policies, primarily focused on fulfilling the labor market needs of certain countries, while maintaining national sovereignty in immigration matters. Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 13, recognizes the right of freedom of movement, many destination countries harbor concerns about immigrants, driven by factors like language, religion, and historical colonial relationships. This apprehension, particularly towards irregular immigrants, has transformed migration from an economic phenomenon into a security issue. Didier Bigo, a security expert, aptly observes that immigration has become a significant security challenge for Europe, reshaping the perception of immigration and necessitating special measures to address it.
Immigration has transformed into a security issue, leading European policies to erect barriers of isolation against irregular immigration. This shift towards securitization, a concept introduced by the Copenhagen School, involves framing any issue as a security threat, thereby garnering public acceptance. Barry Buzan, an influential historian, and political scientist associated with the Copenhagen School, affirms that securitization occurs through a process of discourse and language. This discourse serves to construct a perception of a threat is imminent and jeopardizes the physical and moral survival of a securitized entity, be it an individual, a group, a country, or an identity. Consequently, in European political discourses, immigration is viewed as either a source of or a contributing factor to the exacerbation of contemporary social problems.
Buzan's expanded approach to security studies to include military, political, economic, social, and environmental sectors, played a significant role in broadening the scope of security threats after the Cold War. This expansion led to the inclusion of immigration as a cross-border security issue, particularly within the community security sector highlighted by Buzan.
Irregular immigration has become a security issue and a priority for European governments, especially in the context of the increasing waves of irregular migration, on the pretext that immigrants represent a blatant threat to European societal security. This was achieved “through the use of hostile rhetoric linking immigrants to problems of unemployment, organized crime, drug trafficking, and terrorist threats, prompting European countries to strengthen their efforts at securitizing immigration and presenting it as a societal danger that compromises European social harmony, erodes national identity, and causes political and security instability. Immigration has also turned into a challenge that threatens job security for Europeans.”
The media played a significant role in reinforcing the securitization of immigration. In the early 1990s, attacks on asylum seekers in German cities like Hoyerswerda and Rostock were seen by many German researchers as closely connected to the media's portrayal of immigration. According to Anastassia Tsoukala, this media discourse fueled hostility towards immigrants, reaching a point where the far right believed that attacking foreigners would garner sympathy from a significant portion of the European population. A senior official in the German Journalists Association acknowledged the indirect contribution of journalists to the rise in racist attacks in Germany, explicitly linking these attacks in 1993 to the media’s stance on immigration. Tsoukala further concluded that media outlets in France, Italy, Germany, and Greece often criminalize immigration, disregarding its true reality and thereby fostering anti-immigration public sentiments by associating it with deviance and violence. Newspapers focused their articles on crimes and violations committed by immigrants, even if they were insignificant.
European media also choose sensational headlines, as exemplified by this sample from the Italian press:
- "The Storming of the Italian Coasts" - L'Unità, 14 March 1993.
- "The Invasion of the Desperate" - La Repubblica, 25 March 1997.
- “Ultimate Emergency Against the Threat of Criminal Invasion” – Il Corriere della Sera, 18 March 1997.
French media outlets have frequently associated immigration with crimes committed by immigrants, with a particular emphasis on the issues faced in the suburbs of Paris. Despite ideological divisions within the French media landscape, notably between Le Figaro, aligned with the extreme right and the National Front, and Le Monde, associated with the left and center, their stance on immigration has been largely similar. This convergence is evident from the headlines of both newspapers, including:
- “Illegal Immigration: France Under Pressure” - Le Figaro, 17 December 2013.
- “Against Illegal Immigration, Conditions for Aid to the Maghreb Must Be Imposed” - Le Monde, 22 October 2013.
The right-wing press goes beyond the current European situation and seeks to construct future scenarios that pose a perceived threat to the identity and integrity of European nations. An example is a publication by Le Figaro titled "Will We Be French By 2025?" accompanied by an image of a woman wearing a headscarf. Such depictions and future visions often feature prominently in the electoral campaigns of right-wing and populist movements.
EU policies and procedures securitize irregular migration in the Mediterranean region and Tunisia
The European Union has enacted a set of measures related to the securitization of migration, including:
The European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) was founded on 26 October 2004 to support cooperation in practice between European countries regarding their external borders. This agency officially began its function in October 2005 with its headquarters in Warsaw, where its official mandate was to guard the borders, especially on the coasts of the Mediterranean Sea.
The European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR), founded on 22 October 2013, aims to prevent cross-border crime and irregular migration and help protect the lives of migrants. Under the EUROSUR Act, each member state has a National Coordination Center (NCC) that coordinates and exchanges information between all authorities responsible for external border control and with other Frontex centers.
The International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD) was established in Vienna in 1993 and has grown over the years from a small organization (in terms of its staff and budget) and a secondary and temporary advisory project to an important and primary service provider for European countries that plays a vital role in expanding the EU’s surveillance and control system. Since the ICMPD opened its office in Tunisia in 2015, its influence on migration cooperation between Tunisia and the EU has grown significantly.
Forced deportation policies gained traction with the adoption of the Agreement on Migration by the European Council in October 2008. This agreement, established during the French presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2008, forms the foundation of the EU’s immigration policy. The European Charter for Migration and Asylum, a non-binding agreement, imposes more stringent controls on family reunification for migrants and advocates for the EU to adopt measures such as providing financial incentives for migrants to voluntarily return to their countries and entering into agreements with countries of origin to facilitate the repatriation of irregular migrants.
Establishing detention centers for irregular immigrants: EU member states have established detention centers for irregular immigrants who are apprehended on European coasts and subsequently deported to their countries of origin. These centers have been marked by the absence of minimum conditions for humane treatment, particularly in recent years. A notable example is the case of Tunisian migrants who were held in the Spanish Melilla prison between 2019 and 2021. During their detention, they were subjected to violence by Spanish authorities, highlighting concerns over ill-treatment and inadequate detention facilities.
On Border Violence: When Rescue Is Criminalized
In recent years, fishermen from Zarzis have faced numerous challenges, including attacks, boat seizures, threats, and hostage-taking by Libyan armed groups. These groups, including the Libyan Naval Guard equipped with European systems to combat irregular migration, have targeted the sailors operating in the region. The security concerns extend beyond the sailors of Zarzis, impacting all Tunisian fishermen navigating near the border areas. In the southeast, they face the threat of attacks from Libyan groups, while in the northwest, they encounter challenges from Algerian coast guards. Despite these dangers, the fishermen of Zarzis have continued to extend their help to those in distress. Assisting survivors and coordinating with the coast guard to recover bodies has become a part of their daily lives. For them, saving lives when there is hope is seen as a humanitarian duty, even if it means sacrificing work hours and financial resources. Recognizing the importance of their role and aiming to enhance their effectiveness in rescue operations, over 100 seafarers from Zarzis participated in a six-day sea rescue course organized by Doctors Without Borders in 2015.
While European policies have increasingly criminalized NGOs conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, Tunisian fishermen find themselves at the forefront of rescue efforts. They are prepared for the unexpected while venturing out to sea, stocking up on extra rations of water and food in anticipation of encountering a sinking boat in need of assistance. Despite the challenges and risks involved, these fishermen remain committed to their duty of saving lives and providing aid to those in distress.
The rescue of boats in distress is not only a humanitarian duty but also an obligation mandated by international maritime law, particularly the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), which applies to all ships. According to SOLAS, all states are obligated to bring individuals to safety where their lives are no longer threatened, and their basic needs can be met. However, despite this legal obligation, an incident occurred in the summer of 2018 when fishermen from Zarzis rescued a boat carrying 14 irregular immigrants. After multiple unsuccessful attempts to establish contact, they decided to tow the boat to Italy to disembark the immigrants at a safe location. Unfortunately, this act of rescue resulted in the charges of aiding irregular immigrants, leading to the arrest and subsequent imprisonment of seven fishermen for 22 days in a prison in Sicily.
It is indeed noteworthy that the EU has allocated resources to the EUNAVFOR MED operation Sophia, a military rescue operation aimed at disrupting the activities of smugglers and human traffickers, as recognized by the UNHCR. However, it is important to acknowledge that this military operation closely monitors the activities of sailors involved in human rescue operations, yet appears to turn a blind eye to attacks carried out by Libyan militias. This leaves Tunisian fishermen at the mercy of these attacks and irregular migrants stranded without assistance.
Furthermore, the increased security measures implemented to control borders often disregard the urgency of rescue operations, leading to a lack of intervention during drowning incidents. The actions of both the authorities and border control agencies in the aftermath of the Zarzis boat sinking on 21 September 2022, as highlighted by a study, demonstrated a lack of commitment to saving human lives and conducting thorough search and rescue operations.
Indeed, the policies that prioritize border isolation, heightened surveillance, and security-oriented approaches without addressing underlying development issues can be seen as contributing to the transformation of the Mediterranean into a perilous zone. These policies reflect a dynamic of dependency, underdevelopment, and a lack of disengagement by countries in the Global South. As a result, the phenomenon of irregular migration across the Mediterranean has become a tragic narrative. Its protagonists include individuals who are distressed in their home countries, as well as those who embark on arduous journeys from the forests and deserts of Africa, aspiring to reach the opportunities and possibilities they associate with Europe. For many, the perilous journey across the sea in fragile and overcrowded boats represents the last glimmer of hope in realizing dreams that were unfulfilled in their countries of origin.
Reception and Orientation Center in El Ouardia
Tunisia has shifted from a crossing point to a detention center. This is a clear indication of the Tunisian authorities' inability or reluctance to devise a comprehensive national strategy on migration. Migrants are placed in the El Ouardia Center under inadequate conditions and detained without any legal or judicial basis before being deported to the Tunisian border. In the most favorable circumstances, they are urged to exit Tunisian territory as part of "voluntary return" programs, particularly in collaboration with the International Organization for Migration.
The Reception and Orientation Center in El Ouardia is akin to other detention centers, such as those on the Italian island of Lampedusa, that confine Tunisians and other individuals before either deporting them or permitting their passage.
A study conducted by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights on the Ouardia Center has found that despite the rising numbers of immigrants arriving in Tunisia, particularly Africans seeking refuge from war, hardship, or oppression, the country lacks a comprehensive vision to manage migration and its various dimensions, including political, human, economic, psychological, and intellectual ones. Tunisia's approach to migration is solely security-oriented, lacking legal legitimacy, in breach of the Tunisian constitution's spirit and the rule of law, and stark violation of international conventions and treaties related to the protection of refugees. Additionally, the government has been unable to identify practical and effective solutions to address immigration.
Zarzis Peninsula: The Counterproductive Policy of Combat Illegal Migration
Italy has authorized Libyan coast guard militias to prevent Tunisian fishing boats from fishing in the east, which has caused financial ruin for many fishermen. This has forced some fishermen to use their boats for irregular migration as a means of survival. Addressing irregular migration through a security lens only intensifies its social and economic roots.
This is a process of organized collective punishment for individual actions. Only a small proportion of the fishermen chose to rent their boats to smugglers, as it is not profitable for most to engage in such activity.
Therefore, this situation creates a complex dilemma for Tunisian fishing boats. Accusations of involvement in smuggling irregular migrants from Libya not only stigmatize these fishermen but also subject them to harassment, intimidation, and increased scrutiny. This hostile environment jeopardizes their livelihoods and can lead to unemployment. Paradoxically, these circumstances may inadvertently push some fishermen towards engaging in migrant smuggling activities as an alternative means of sustaining their economic livelihoods.
The Zarzis area has undergone and still sees semi-regular funerals, some involving burials, while others entail Quran recitations at sea, for those from the region who have drowned or disappeared in the Mediterranean. The region has a cemetery known as Al-Ghuraba (Outsiders) Cemetery, where immigrants of diverse nationalities, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, are interred since they do not have any known relatives or homeland to receive their remains.
Tunisia serves not only as a departure and transit point for Tunisians but also for numerous sub-Saharan migrants. The EU-Tunisian authorities' endeavors to repress this migration have rendered Tunisia a migration tension hotspot by disrupting migration flows to Europe and sending those intercepted back to Tunisia. Nonetheless, those prevented from emigrating are provided with no solutions or alternatives. A portion of the immigrants who arrive in Europe is also deported to Tunisia, especially North African and sub-Saharan immigrants who are unable or unwilling to return to their countries due to economic, social, or political reasons. Regrettably, there is no policy in place to integrate them in Tunisia, with prevention and suppression as the sole approach. Different countries co-embrace this Euro-Mediterranean policy, although losses, unlike gains, are unevenly distributed. The most disadvantaged groups economically and socially, and primarily in southern societies, are the biggest losers. Conversely, the right-wing movements hostile to foreigners, governments that embrace a neoliberal economic approach, and the ruling regimes in North African countries, especially Tunisia, Libya, and Morocco, are the largest beneficiaries.
2. The Existing Agreement
The present agreement between North and South countries is formal in practice, yet its discourse and documentation are informal. It is an intergovernmental agreement between security institutions, politically overseen, and solely based on a "security" approach that strives to stifle irregular migration dynamics along the coasts and at sea through the securitization approach. In Tunisia, for example, irregular migration is criminalized via the February 2004 law (Amending and Supplementing Law No. 75-40 of 14 May 1975) relating to passports and travel documents. The embassies and their agencies also restrict or decline to grant visas, significantly limiting legal migration dynamics.
European border expansion policies are based on the principle that European borders begin in Tunisia. The eastern and northern maritime borders of Tunisia have become the southern borders of Europe. These borders are expanding through the land border with Libya and the electronic wall project with Algeria.
According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), over 300 million individuals worldwide are living outside their home countries, with many forced to migrate due to complex reasons. In Tunisia, immigration has become a common aspiration that unites Tunisian men and women, but restrictive policies imposed by the EU, particularly with regard to visas, have made it challenging for many to achieve this goal. The EU selectively chooses migrants that meet its requirements and leaves the rest at the mercy of smuggling networks. According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, deaths on Tunisian shores are a natural outcome of these restrictive policies and Tunisia's security-oriented approach, which has served as a loyal guard for European borders but failed to stem migration flows or prevent deaths. Since the start of 2022, 875 people have died or gone missing in the central Mediterranean, with 443 in Tunisian territorial waters. During the same period, 14,762 migrants were prevented from reaching Italian shores, while 51,353 arrived in Italy, including 10,139 Tunisian nationals, of whom 2,102 were minors and 498 were women, not accounting for unreported cases.
At the level of international law, the actions of EU-Tunisian authorities are in clear violation of several international laws and conventions, including the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea of 1974, the International Convention for Search and Rescue at Sea of 1979, and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of 1982.
3. The “Praxis” of Displacement and Deportation
In 2020, out of the 4,387 immigrants detained in Italy, 2,623 were Tunisians, accounting for 59.7% of the detained population. Additionally, of the 3,351 immigrants from all nationalities who were deported, 1,997 were Tunisians, accounting for 59.5%. From 1 January 2021 to 30 April 2021, a total of 1,097 people from all nationalities were deported, 618 of them Tunisians, making up 56.3% of the deportees. During this same period, 592 Tunisians were deported via 25 flights from Enfidha-Hammamet International Airport.
|Deportees on private flights
Forced Deportation from Germany | Source: Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights
Changes in the Number of Detected Migrants and Thwarted Crossings Since 2018
|Arrivals to Italy
|Crossing migrants detained
|Arrivals to Italy
|Crossing migrants detained
|Arrivals to Italy
|Crossing migrants detained
|Arrivals to Italy
|Crossing migrants detained
Source: Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights
4. Results of this Policy
The rising number of deaths due to drowning or being lost at sea, along with social tension and a sense of injustice, are contributing to feelings of helplessness among many, especially young people who are already facing economic and social challenges. As a result, there has been a decrease in mobility and movement, affecting both Tunisians and non-Tunisians.
Furthermore, the implementation of a security-first policy and a bartering approach, where countries promise to secure their borders in exchange for political support, is creating conditions that could lead to the transformation of the current political system into a dictatorship. The strengthening of security apparatus and impunity is being blessed by geo-political interests, and this approach could potentially undermine democratic values and institutions.
Europe has prioritized the security of its borders over addressing poverty, exchanging border closures for visa grants to the wealthy, and seeking loyalty in exchange for international approval and funding from the Tunisian government. However, these arrangements have failed to address the issue of poverty, which knows no borders, no matter how heavily guarded or violent. A genuine solution requires recognizing the right to a decent life and freedom of movement as a means to improving living standards. The North must acknowledge that its economic dominance over the South comes at a cost: a massive migration of people who have been impoverished by laws and policies set by powerful groups.
The views represented in this paper are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Arab Reform Initiative, its staff, or its board.