By Alarm phone Tunis

In recent months, Tunisia has come under increasing scrutiny from European countries. Faced with the increase of crossings along the Tunisian route, particularly active between Sfax and Lampedusa, the EU and its member states have stepped up their outsourcing policies in an effort to reduce the number of arrivals on the Italian coast. Facing increasing pressures, President Kais Saied has adopted an ambiguous attitude: reiterating his determination to avoid turning Tunisia into Europe’s “border guard,” he is nevertheless steadily stepping up cooperation with European countries on migration control, and continuing to fan the flames of hate speech against Tunisia’s Black population.

In September, for instance, Tunisian authorities halted the visit of several members of the EU Parliament for meetings with civil society over the political situation in Tunisia. In early October, Kais Saied also rejected the financial support announced by the European Union in September, complaining that the amount was too small and went against the spirit of the deal signed three months prior. This deal, which had been agreed upon in July, included a pledge of 1 billion euros in aid to Tunisia to purportedly support its economy and state finances and deal with the so-called “migration crisis.”

According to a press release from the Tunisian presidency, the President stated that “Tunisia, which accepts cooperation, does not accept anything resembling charity or favor, because our country and our people do not want sympathy and do not accept it when it is without respect.” The money that was rejected by the President was, however, coming from an old agreement with the EU and not from the recently signed memorandum. 

At the same time, as Austria’s Minister of the Interior Gerhard Karner (ÖVP) said on Thursday November 16, 2023 during a trip to Tunisia, “the migration agreement concluded this summer between the European Union (EU) and Tunisia ‘is slowly beginning to produce its effects‘”. On the occasion of this trip, a training center for Tunisian border guards was inaugurated, financed by the European Union as part of a project coordinated by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD)[1]. 

A few weeks earlier, in September 2023, several media reported that the EU was actively working to set up a SAR zone in Tunisian waters as part of the implementation of the memorandum of understanding recently signed between Tunisia and Europe. This project, which is accompanied by the setting up of an MRCC in Tunisia and the strengthening of capacities of Tunisian coastguards, follows the model of the “refoulement by proxy” system that the European Union has had in place in Libya for several years. These plans are being pursued despite the fact that Tunisia can in no way be considered a safe country, neither for Tunisians nor for migrants trying to flee the country, and despite the numerous rights violations committed by the Tunisian Coast Guard against people on the move that have been reported by civil society actors. 

Meanwhile, the situation of migrants on Tunisian soil continues to deteriorate. According to various testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch, Alarm Phone and other civil society actors, practices of refoulement at the Algerian and Libyan borders have become systematic. Since September 2023, anyone intercepted at sea by the Tunisian National Guard appears to be immediately deported to these desert areas. These practices also affect survivors of shipwrecks, as well as people of nationalities likely to receive international protection in Tunisia via the UNHCR.

After peaking again in September 2023 (following the July peak), deportations continue on a daily basis. At the Libyan border, an agreement seems to have been reached between Tunisian authorities and Libyan militias, whereby some migrants report being handed over to the Libyans in exchange for oil and other goods from Libya. The migrants then report being taken to the Al-Assah center, a military base around thirty kilometers from Zuwara, before being handed over to various militias. For their part, the  Libyan Border Guard announced the activation of electronic surveillance observatories on the border with Tunisia in the Al-Assah sector[2]. 

At the Algerian border, people being turned back are caught in the crossfire between Tunisian and Algerian authorities. As reported by the Alarm Phone Sahara network, a series of people have been turned back from Tunisia to Algeria, and then from Algeria to Niger.  After being expelled to Algeria, other people try to cross the Moroccan border, but here, too, they encounter numerous obstacles and violence from the Moroccan authorities. As a result, many people on the move fall victim to this game of ping-pong between the authorities, who turn them back from one country to another.

Most of those who are still in Tunisia are in an extremely precarious situation. Many migrants are homeless, have been evicted from their homes and have lost their jobs. In front of the IOM office in Tunis, hundreds of people continue to gather, forced to demand their “voluntary” return to their country of origin. In Sfax, the face of the town has changed, after many migrants were rounded up by Tunisian forces and taken by force to olive groves further north.

After a record number of arrivals in Lampedusa in the second week of September, from October onwards the number of people leaving Tunisia to reach Italy by sea has plummeted. Although the causes of this fall in the number of crossings are varied, it is clear that migration control is being used as a lever by President Kais Saied in his negotiations with the European Union.

As underlined by the organization Maldusa, Kais Saied’s attitude can also be interpreted as an “intention to control Tunisian territory and any form of organization that escapes state control, whether political (political opponents, activists, NGOs) or economic (smuggling networks). Sovereignism – the monopoly of the state in controlling the territory-rather than political opportunism, is the filter through which to read Kais Saied’s political intention at the same time the point of convergence with Giorgia Meloni’s political vision and justification for the repressive and dictatorial nature of the political system orchestrated in recent years.”[3]

The drop in the number of boats using the Tunisian route in October should not obscure the autonomy of migration and the ability of people on the move to invent new strategies to overcome borders. As we have seen for a long time, reinforcing borders does not stop the movement of people, but only diverts the routes and often makes them more dangerous.

Alarm Phone has been able to observe that in October, for instance, departures from Libya, especially around Zuwara, increased: several boats carrying around 50 people arrived in Lampedusa, with an average travel time of 24 hours only. Also remarkable were the 3 big fishing vessels with several hundreds of people on board which landed in Lampedusa recently.

Picture One of the fishing vessel from Zuwara arrived to Lampedusa, October 2023, Credit: Maldusa