Activist from the FTDES (Forum Tunisien Des Droits Economiques Et Sociaux)

Could you tell us about the FTDES and its role in migration-related struggles?

The FTDES’s philosophy has always been based on confronting unfair policies and standing by the most vulnerable groups. For this reason, migration justice was one of the most important topics that we worked on from the beginning. In addition to the social movements or dynamics related to immigration, we focused on the political dimension of migration issues and tried to confront every deviation that affects the rights and dignity of people on the move and all political ramifications that justify this violation.

We monitor the political context and especially relations between Tunisia and its European partners. We also pay attention to the national laws, which no longer respond to Tunisia’s international commitments and/or are not up to the level of values and the principles raised by the Tunisian revolution, such as freedom, democracy, justice, and equality. We can say that the political aspect held an important space in the FTDES’s work in presenting a narrative different from the government’s narrative, which presents a vision that is fundamentally biased toward the displaced people.

Since 2020, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people leaving Tunisia by sea. How can this trend be explained?

What happened is that Tunisia, in its faltering phase of transition experienced after the year 2011, neglected an economic and social transition. This neglect deepened the role of corrupted families in the Tunisian economy. The post-revolutionary transition also deepened the existing disparities among the people, which was further aggravated by the political crisis that began in 2020, led by the Presidency of the Republic and Parliament. The conflict between the Presidency of the Republic on the one hand and Parliament and the prime ministers of the government on the other, gave Tunisians the impression that the political future had become very uncertain.

2020 is also the year of Covid and in Tunisia, like other countries of the South, the most vulnerable groups were affected. During this year, Tunisian citizens felt abandoned by the state but also felt abandoned by the rich countries. There were two factors in the year 2020 to particularly take into consideration, namely, political and economic factors, which allowed the crises to deepen.

Metal boats also appeared at the end of 2020. What are the characteristics of these boats, and why are they gradually replacing wooden boats?

The Tunisian state’s strategy to combat so-called irregular migration has targeted organized / self-organized migration networks. In Tunisia, we find mainly wooden boats, and the authorities have taken strict measures against the factories or workshops licensed by the state involved in the manufacture of these boats. These anti-immigration measures also harmed fishermen, leaving them to face significant bureaucratic procedures, even in boat maintenance and renovation procedures. The state has also restricted raw materials. In this situation it is natural that the smuggling networks will resort to alternative methods to ensure access to the northern coast of the Mediterranean and as a consequence, they resorted to iron boats.

In that period, iron boats were easy to manufacture and only needed basic materials that were easy to get but also the manufacturing process did not require large equipment, providing the people making them with a greater financial income, but they have proved to be dangerous. These boats are intended mainly for “sub-Saharan migrants”, and this shows the difference between sub-Saharan migrants and Tunisian migrants who use wooden and rubber boats.

The FTDES reports that a new route has developed, with migrants arriving in Tunisia via the Algerian land border before going on to Sfax and attempting the crossing. Can you elaborate on this new route?  

This migration route is a result of the EU migration policies when it closed the route through the East (so called Balkan route) and made agreements with Libyan militias, but also with Morocco, as all this prompted the waves of movement to search for a new migration route from the Algerian desert to Tunisia and then Sfax. We shall not also forget that there is tolerance from the Algerian authorities that allows migrants to cross into Tunisia.

People who are in Tunisia have already had a previous harsh immigration experience, and may consider that the route to/from Tunisia as less dangerous and less abusive, despite the tragedies that were witnessed, but also the geographical proximity is an important element. As Tunisia has a tradition of immigration, people moving to Tunisia think that it is easier to cross from its coast.

The majority of people here have fled wars, conflicts, and climate change. Most of them are young men, but there are many women and children.

Commemoraction in Tunis, February 2023, Credit: FTDES

A few months ago, several civil society organizations, including the FTDES, denounced the violent interception practices of the national maritime guard, which had caused several shipwrecks. Are these practices continuing today? How can the increase in these violent practices be explained?

In general and in the past years, the dominant narrative was that the Tunisian Coast Guards were not violent with migrants compared to Libyan ones. But it should be noted that the Tunisian Coast Guards have committed crimes previously like in 2011, when navy vessel “houriya 301”, in order to intercept migrants, hit the boat directly with the military vessel. Same thing happened again in 2017 in Kerkennah.

A few years ago, the testimonies that we collected and received from non-Tunisian migrants stated that Tunisian Coast Guards had a more humanitarian approach in rescues. Back in those days, there were not a lot of people departing from Tunisia towards Europe. Then, more and more people were intercepted to Tunisia and more, more non-Tunisian citizens started departing from the Tunisian coasts and the EU started giving more attention to the Tunisia Route, where they have started training, funding, equipping, coordinating with the Tunisian Coast Guard and authorities.

Since then, after 2020, we started hearing about violent behavior from the Tunisian Coast Guard. The Tunisian Coast Guard started to develop a new narrative which was more present and dominant in the media, stating that they get attacked by migrants when they try to rescue them. Through testimonies collected from people on the move, certain NGOs and activists broke the silence around this violence, providing evidence of such attacks. However, it is still very hard to collect evidence since the Tunisian Coast Guards officers steal all phones that have recorded any video or taken any picture. They also threaten people on the move with deportation and detention if they speak up about this violence to journalists or NGOs.

During the first six months of the year 2023, the Tunisian Coast Guard made a strategy of befriending certain TV channels, radios and journalists, as if they had a clear and previously prepared media strategy to counter what people on the move have been reporting on different social media platforms. Today, since it’s clear that they are responsible for the tragedies that are ongoing on the Tunisian coasts, they have changed their media strategy by legitimizing their practices as part of a “legitimate violence from the state”.

We consider their communication strategy as a clear recognition from the Ministry of Interior of the violence that has been perpetuated by the TNCG on people on the move at sea. Today, unfortunately, it is still ongoing but it is getting harder and harder to get in touch with people on the move and to document the violations since their strategy is to deport almost every person that gets intercepted at sea to the Algerian or Libyan borders and take their phones.

Tunisian fishermen are often the only witnesses to shipwrecks and violations of the law at sea. How do they react?

After the 2011 revolution, Tunisian fishermen were always a major witness at sea, and they often engage in rescue operations, following what is imposed on them by the law and their moral duty. This was particularly evident during the Libyan war, during which many migrants departed from there. Fishermen have contributed in rescuing many lives.

However, in recent years, fishermen have been subjected to a form of punishment for their involvement in rescuing migrants. There were policies adopted to remove them from the geographical area close to the Libyan coast and turn it into a space that is a quasi-closed military zone. We saw what happened with the Libyan militias: fishermen were shot and their boats seized.

From the Tunisian side, there are also attempts to prevent the fishermen from standing in solidarity with people on the move. For example, the fisherman who undertakes a rescue operation must obtain permission from the Tunisian authorities. The delay of the Tunisian authorities in responding to the Mayday call, forces the fisherman to abandon his fish harvest and to call other surrounding boats. The political message that is conveyed by the Tunisian authorities to the fishermen that rescuing migrants in distress is not their concern and that they shall stay away from this issue. For this reason, when a fisherman goes to sea, he is torn between his human and moral duty and the indirect punishment that he may be exposed to for his contribution in saving lives.

What happens to migrants (whether Tunisian or from other countries) after they are intercepted by the national coastguard?

Previously, although the crossing was criminalized by the 2004 law, migrants were released and those who were suspected of organizing the passage were detained. This changed in 2020 after the increasing cooperation between the European Union and Tunisia. Both Tunisians and non-Tunisian nationals faced more and more violence in the process of interceptions of boats, confiscating phones and everything that migrants own. For Tunisians, they are criminalized for crossings, and for non-Tunisians, there is collective punishment for all participants, and this is done by deporting them to the Algerian or Libyan borders, often the desert, in very difficult climatic conditions in winter and summer.

For the moment, Tunisia does not have a SAR (Search and Rescue) zone officially recognised by the IMO. However, it seems that Tunisia is under considerable pressure from the European Union to speed up the creation of such a zone. Where does Tunisia stand on this issue? And what would be the consequences of defining a Tunisian SAR zone?

There is a draft law that was recently adopted. The authorities portray it to the public as a part of Tunisia’s obligations under the international agreement to which Tunisia is a signatory. But we expect that the process of declaring a SAR zone is following the European Union’s agenda, alongside the issue of readmission of migrants from the EU back to Tunisia and the adoption of a Tunisian asylum law. These three points were the European Union’s priorities in its relationship with Tunisia.

A Tunisian SAR zone is essentially a European demand and comes from a package of measures that must be taken to deal with the European Union, as it already happened with Libya. We have the impression that today we want to copy the Libyan example in Tunisia, and considering the multiple visits of European officials, we expected, as civil society organizations, that there would be other things that will be implemented on the legal side, such as the issue of the national asylum law and the issue of the SAR zone.

Today we often hear that the Tunisian coast is witnessing humanitarian tragedies one after the other. As an answer to this situation, the Tunisian authorities always use the excuse of the lack of logistical and technical capacities to carry out proper search and rescue operations. Expanding the SAR area to great distances will contribute in establishing the European approach on the ground: the Tunisian Coast Guard will become a main actor in interception operations over very long distances and therefore transporting migrants back to Tunisia, which we consider to be an unsafe country. It will also limit the operational space for SAR NGOS. We believe that it will turn Tunisia into a disembarkation platform for migrants, and this will perhaps be followed by other measures on the pretext of transforming/deeming Tunisia into a so-called “safe port”. Tunisia will be fully involved in border externalization policies and it will clearly turn into a European border point and make Tunisia a guard of the European borders.

In July 2023, the European Union signed a new cooperation agreement with Tunisia, providing for a budget of 105 million euros to strengthen migration control. We recently learned that President Kais Said had refused the first installment of funding, deeming the sums announced derisory and refusing to accept for his country what he saw as “charity”. How do you explain this reaction? And what do you see as the future of this agreement?

The basis of this agreement is a political and moral failure. It came in difficult political circumstances, especially on the Tunisian side, in which all the elements of freedom and democracy were not present. Migrants were subjected to repression on land and at sea. It also came in a context in which civil society organizations and activists supporting people on the move were exposed to a campaign of slander, hatred, and being accused of betrayal. Still today, all opposition voices in Tunisia are being harassed, whether by imprisonment or smear campaigns. Therefore, in these circumstances, there was no societal discussion in democratic institutions on the content of the agreement, and the agreement was discussed in non-transparent conditions.

This agreement gives the European citizen a higher status than the Tunisian citizen. This means that the European citizen is at an advanced level and enjoys all rights, unlike the Tunisian citizen who does not enjoy those. The memorandum classifies Tunisian citizens into specific categories and classes, categories of people that meet the conditions of visa and migration and categories of people that will be forced to migrate without having access to safe and legal pathways. It is based on 5 points, but the core of the text is the so-called irregular migration and the issue of so-called readmission.

The agreement was made between two parties between whom there is not much trust, and this is clear after the agreement. As we expected, this agreement was born dead, and we already see signs of a lack of trust between the two parties after the statements of the Tunisian side regarding the funds that were rejected. But these are funds related to previous pledges related to the Covid pandemic and have nothing to do with the recent agreement. In any case, we believe that this agreement will not be applied despite the efforts made by Georgia Meloni to try to market this agreement as the one and only solution.

Demonstration against the visit of Meloni in Tunisia, 6th of June 2023, Credit: FTDES

The European Union’s externalization policies in Tunisia continue to strengthen and harden. How can civil society, in the south and north of the Mediterranean, oppose them?

In the countries of the South, the context is very difficult. Civil society’s role is retreating, in a unilateral context, that does not recognize the role of civil society, and this reduces the margin of action at the level of direct influence on policies. Perhaps in the northern countries, despite the restrictions to which activists are exposed, the civil society could have greater scope for action.

But this does not mean that we must remain silent about what is happening in Europe or in the countries of the global South. There must be more networking, organizing, and more openness to civil, social, and union movements. The Mediterranean region has turned into a cemetery, and although the scope for action has become more difficult in the countries of the global South, hope is always present and there must be no silence regarding all racist and violent accomplices against people on the move.

Thanks Romdhane, for this interview!


ECHOES Issue 9, November 2023 – English