by the Civil MRCC legal team
On August 21, 2023, the rescue ship Aurora from Sea Watch was detained by the Italian authorities after refusing to disembark survivors in Tunisia as ordered by the Rome MRCC (Maritime Rescue Coordination Center), a country which by no means can be considered a place of safety.
This episode is just one example of the efforts of European states to avoid arrivals on their shores at all costs, and to evade their responsibility for reception and Search and Rescue (SAR). Already in 2018, the European Commission, with its disembarkation platform project, attempted to force sea rescue NGOs to disembark survivors in North Africa. While this project was ultimately unsuccessful as it stood, European states have endeavored to increase the number of measures aimed at reducing crossings in the central Mediterranean.
One of the strategies employed was to set up a “push-back by proxy regime”, outsourcing interceptions at sea to the Libyan Coast guards, enabling the sending back of people on the move to a territory in which their lives are at risk, undertaken by Libyan border forces under the control of the EU authorities, in contravention of principle of non-refoulement, one of the cornerstones of international refugee law. Since 2016, the EU and its member states have equipped, financed, and trained the Libyan coastguard and supported the creation of a MRCC in Tripoli and the declaration of a Libyan SRR (search and rescue region).
This analysis details how the European Union and its member states are attempting to replicate in Tunisia the regime of refoulement by proxy set up in Libya just a few years earlier. Four elements are considered: strengthening the capacities of the Tunisian coastguard (equipment and training), setting up a coastal surveillance system, creating a functional MRCC and declaring a Tunisian SRR.
A. Building capacity of the Garde Nationale Maritime
For several decades now, Tunisia has been receiving equipment to strengthen its coast guard capabilities. After the Jasmine Revolution in 2011, Italy-Tunisia cooperation deepened. Under the informal agreement of April 5, 2011, 12 boats were delivered to the Tunisian authorities. In 2017, in a joint statement by the IItalian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Tunisian counterpart, the two parties committed to “closer cooperation in the fight against irregular migration and border management,” with a particular focus on the maritime border. In this context, the Italian Minister declared Italy’s support for the modernization and maintenance of the patrol vessels supplied to Tunisia (worth around 12 million euros) and the supply of new equipment for maritime border control. On March 13, 2019, Italy also supplied Tunisia with vehicles for maritime border surveillance, sending 50 4-wheelers designed to monitor the coasts.
Recently, Germany also started to support the coast guard more actively in Tunisia, providing it with equipment for a boat workshop designed to repair coast guard vessels in 2019. As revealed in an answer to a parliamentary question, in the last two years, the Federal Police also donated 12 inflatable boats and 27 boat motors. On the French side, after a visit in Tunis in June 2023, the Interior Minister Gérard Darmanin announced 25 million euros in aid enabling Tunisia to buy border policing equipment and train border guards. In August 2023, the Italian authorities also promised hastening the provision of patrol boats and other vehicles aimed at preventing sea departures.
Apart from EU member states, Tunisia has also received equipment from the USA. Between 2012 and 2019, the Tunisian Navy was equipped with 26 US-made patrol boats. In 2019, the Tunisian national guard was also reinforced with 3 American helicopters. Primarily designed to fight against terrorism, the US equipment is also used to monitor the Tunisian coast and to track “smugglers.”
Above all, the supply of equipment to the Tunisian coastguard is gaining more and more support by the European Union. Following the EU-Tunisia memorandum signed on July 16, 2023, for which €150 million was pledged towards the “fight against illegal migration”, in September 2023, Tunisia received a first transfer under the agreement of €67 million “to finance a coast guard vessel, spare parts and marine fuel for other vessels as well as vehicles for the Tunisian coast guard and navy, and training to operate the equipment.”
In a letter to the European Council, leaked by Statewatch in October 2023, the European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen highlighted the provision of vessels and support to the Tunisian coast guards: “Under the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia, we have delivered spare parts for Tunisian coast guards that are keeping 6 boats operation and others will be repaired by the end of the year.”
Trainings the authorities
In addition to supplying equipment, the European countries are also organizing training courses to enhance the skills of the Tunisian coastguard. In 2019, Italy’s Interior Ministry released €11 million to Tunisia’s government for use in efforts to stem the crossing of people on the move from Tunisia, and to provide training to local security forces involved in maritime border control.
Under the framework of Phase III of the EU-supported IBM project (Integrated Border Management), Germany is also organizing training for the Tunisian coast guards. As revealed in the answer to a parliamentary question mentioned before, the German Ministry of Interior admitted that 3.395 members of the Tunisian National Guard and border police had been trained, including within Germany. In addition, 14 training and advanced training measures were carried out for the National Guard, the border police, and the coast guard. These training sessions were also aimed at learning how to use “control boats.”
In a document presenting the “EU Support to Border Management Institutions in Libya and Tunisia” for the year 2021, the European Commission announced the creation of a “coast guard training academy.” In Tunisia, the project consists of implementing a training plan, rehabilitating the physical training environment of the Garde Nationale Maritime, and enhancing the cooperation between Tunisian authorities and all stakeholders, including EU agencies and neighboring countries. Implemented by the German Federal Police and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), the project started in January 2023 and is supposed to run until June 2026, to the sum of 13,5 million EUR.
Although the European Commission underlines the objective that “the Training Academy Staff is fully aware and acting on the basis of human rights standards” the increase in dangerous maneuvers and attacks perpetrated by the Tunisian coast guard since the increase in European support leaves little doubt that respect for human rights is far from top priority.
On November 17, 2023, the ICMPD announced on its Linkedin account the inauguration of the Nefta inter-agency border management training center, as a benefit to the three agencies responsible for border management in Tunisia (Directorate General Directorate of Borders and Foreigners of the Ministry of the Interior, the General Directorate of Border Guard of the National Guard and the General Directorate of Customs).
B. Setting up a coastal surveillance system
In addition to supplying equipment, European countries also organize training courses to enhance the skills of European coastguards in the pursuit of an “early detection” strategy, which involves spotting boats as soon as they leave the Tunisian coast in order to outsource their interception to the Tunisian coastguard. As early as 2019, Italy expressed its willingness to install radar equipment in Tunisia and to establish “a shared information system that will promptly alert the Tunisian gendarmerie and Italian coast guard when migrant boats are at sea, in order to block them while they still are in Tunisian waters.” This ambition seems to have been achieved through the implementation of the system ISMaris in Tunisia.
An Integrated System for Maritime Surveillance (ISMaris)
The system ISMaris, or “Integrated System for Maritime Surveillance”, was first mentioned in the “Support Programme to Integrated Border Management in Tunisia” (IBM Tunisia, launched in 2015. Funded by the EU and Switzerland and implemented by the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), the first phase of the program (2015-2018) supported the equipment of the Garde Nationale Maritime with this system, defined as “a maritime surveillance system that centralizes information coming from naval assets at sea and from coastal radars […] [aiming] to connect the sensors (radar, VHF, GPS position, surveillance cameras) on board of selected Tunisian Coast Guard vessels, control posts, and command centers within the Gulf of Tunis zone in order for them to better communicate between each other.”
The implementation of this data centralization system was then taken over by the “Border Management Programme for the Maghreb Region” (BMP-Maghreb), launched in 2018 and funded by the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The Tunisia component, funded with €24,5 million is implemented by ICMPD together with the Italian Ministry of Interior and designed to “strengthen the capacity of competent Tunisian authorities in the areas of maritime surveillance and migration management, including tackling migrant smuggling, search and rescue at sea, as well as in the coast guard sphere of competence.” With the BMP programme, the Tunisian Garde Maritime Nationale was equipped with navigational radars, thermal cameras, AIS and other IT equipment related to maritime surveillance.
Data exchange with the EU
The action document of the BMP program clearly states that one of the purposes of ISMaris is the reinforcement of “operational cooperation in the maritime domain between Tunisia and Italy (and other EU Member States, and possibly through EUROSUR and FRONTEX).” Established in 2013, the European Border Surveillance system (EUROSUR) is a framework for information exchange and cooperation between Member States and Frontex, to prevent the so-called irregular migration at external borders. Thanks to this system, Frontex already monitors the coast regions off Tunisia using aerial service and satellites.
What remains dubious is the connection between IS-Maris and the EU surveillance-database. In 2020, the European Commission claimed that ISMariS was still in development and not connected to any non-Tunisian entity such as Frontex, the European Border Surveillance System (EUROSUR) or the Italian border control authorities. But it is likely that in the meantime information exchange between the different entities was systematized.
In the absence of an official agreement, the cooperation between Frontex and Tunisia is unclear. As already mentioned in Echoes#3, “so far, it has not been possible to verify if Frontex has direct contact with the Tunisian Coast Guard as it is the case with the Libyan Coast Guard. Even if most of the interceptions happen close to Tunisian shores, some are carried out by the Tunisian Navy outside of territorial waters. […] Since May 2021 Frontex has been flying a drone, in addition to its different assets, monitoring the corridor between Tunisia and Lampedusa on a daily basis. While it is clear that Frontex is sharing data with the Italian authorities and that Italian authorities are sharing info on boats which are on the way from Tunisia to Italy with the Tunisian side, the communication and data exchanges between Frontex and Tunisian authorities remain uncertain.”
While in 2021, Frontex reported that “no direct border related activities have been carried out in Tunisia due to Tunisian authorities’ reluctance to cooperate with Frontex”, formalizing the cooperation between Tunisia and Frontex seems to remain one of the EU’s priorities. In September 2023, a delegation from Tunisia visited Frontex headquarters in Poland, with the participation of the Ministries of Interior, Foreign Affairs and Defence. During this visit, briefings were held on the cross-border surveillance system EUROSUR and where all threads from surveillance from ships, aircraft, drones and satellites come together.
However, as emphasized by Mathias Monroy, an independent researcher working on border externalization and the expansion of surveillance systems, “Tunisia still does not want to negotiate such a deployment of Frontex personnel to its territory, so a status agreement necessary for this is a long way off. The government in Tunis is also not currently seeking a working agreement to facilitate the exchange of information with Frontex.”
This does not prevent the EU from continuing its efforts. In September 2023, in the wake of the thousands of arrivals on the island of Lampedusa, the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, reaffirmed, in a 10-point action plan, the need to have a “working arrangement between Tunisia and Frontex” and to “step up border surveillance at sea and aerial surveillance including through Frontex.” In a letter written by the European Commission in reply to the LIBE letter about the Tunisia deal sent on the Greens Party initiative in July 2023, the EU also openly admits that IT equipment for operations rooms, mobile radar systems and thermal imaging cameras, navigation radars and sonars have been given to Tunisia so far and that more surveillance equipment is to come.
To be noted as well is that the EU4BorderSecurity program, which includes support to “inter-regional information sharing, utilizing tools provided by Frontex” has been extended for Tunisia until April 2025.
C. Supporting the creation of a Tunisian MRCC and the declaration of a Search and rescue region (SRR)
Building a MRCC in Tunisia, a top priority for the EU
In 2021, the European Commission stated the creation of a functioning MRCC in Tunisia as a priority: “Currently there is no MRCC in Tunisia but the coordination of SAR events is conducted by Tunisian Navy Maritime Operations Centre. The official establishment of a MRCC is a necessary next step, together with the completion of the radar installations along the coast, and will contribute to implementing a Search and rescue region in Tunisia. The establishment of an MRCC would bring Tunisia’s institutional set-up in line with the requirements set in the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) of 1979 (as required by the Maritime Safety Committee of the International Maritime Organisation IMO).”
The objective of creating a functioning Tunisian MRCC is also mentioned in a European Commission document presenting the “strategy for the regional, multi-country cooperation on migration with partner countries in North Africa” for the period 2021-2027. The related project is detailed in the “Action Document for EU Support to Border Management Institutions in Libya and Tunisia (2021),” whose overall objective is to “contribute to the improvement of respective state services through the institutional development of the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres” in the North Africa region. The EU also promotes a “regional approach to a Maritime Rescue Coordination Center,” that “would improve the coordination in the Central Mediterranean in conducting SAR operations and support the fight against migrant smuggling and trafficking in human beings networks in Libya and Tunisia.”
The Tunisia component of the programs announces the objective to “support the establishment of a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre, [… ] operational 24/7 in a physical structure with functional equipment and trained staff,” establishing “cooperation of the Tunisian authorities with all national stakeholders, EU agencies and neighbouring countries on SAR.”
This project seems to be gradually taking shape. On the website of Civipol, the French Ministry of the Interior’s service and consultancy company, a new project entitled “Support for Search and Rescue Operations at Sea in Tunisia” is mentioned in a job advertisement. It states that this project, funded by the European Union, implemented together with the GIZ and starting in September 2023, aims to “support the Tunisian authorities in strengthening their operational capacities (fleet and other)” and “provide support to the Tunisian authorities in strengthening the Marine Nationale and the MRCC via functional equipment and staff training.”
In October 2023, the German development agency GIZ also published a job offer for a project manager in Tunisia, to implement the EU-funded project “Support to border management institution (MRCC)” in Tunisia (the job offer was deleted from the website in the meantime but screenshots can be shared on demand). The objective of the project is described as such: “improvement of the Tunisia’s Search and Rescue (SAR) capacity through reinforced border management institutions to conduct SAR operations at sea and the fight against migrant smuggling and human being trafficking by supporting increased collaboration between Tunisian actors via a Maritime RescueCoordination Centre (MRCC).”
According to Mathias Monroy, other steps have been taken in this direction: “[the Tunisian MRCC] has already received an EU-funded vessel tracking system and is to be connected to the “Seahorse Mediterranean” network. Through this, the EU states exchange information about incidents off their coasts. This year Tunisia has also sent members of its coast guards to Italy as liaison officers – apparently a first step towards the EU’s goal of “linking” MRCC’s in Libya and Tunisia with their “counterparts” in Italy and Malta.”
The establishment of a functional MRCC represents a major challenge for the EU, with the aim to allow Tunisia to engage actively in coordination of interceptions. Another step in the recognition of the Tunisian part as a valid SAR actor by the IMO is the declaration of a search and rescue region (SRR).
The unclear status of the current Tunisian area of responsibility
Adopted in 1979 in Hamburg, the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR – Search & Rescue Convention) aimed to establish an international search and rescue plan to encourage cooperation and coordination between neighboring states in order to ensure better assistance to persons in distress at sea. The main idea of the convention is to divide seas and oceans into search and rescue zones in which states are responsible for providing adequate SAR services, by establishing rescue coordination centers and setting operating procedures to be followed in case of SAR operations.
Whereas Tunisia acceded to the treaty in 1998, this was not followed by the delimitation of the Tunisian SAR zone of responsibilities nor by regional agreements with neighboring states. It is only in 2013 that Tunisia declared the limits of its SRR, following the approval of the Maghreb Convention in the Field of Search and Rescue in 2013 and by virtue of Decree No. 2009-3333 of November 2, 2009, setting out the intervention plans and means to assist aircraft in distress. In application of this norm, Tunisian authorities are required to intervene immediately, following the first signal of help or emergency, in the limits of the Tunisia sovereign borders (12 nautical miles). This means that under national legislation, Tunisian authorities are obliged to intervene only in territorial waters. Outside this domain, the limits of SAR interventions are not clearly defined.
A point to underline is that the Tunisian territorial waters overlap with the Maltese SRR. The Tunisian Exclusive Economic Zone – which does not entail any specific duty connected to SAR – also overlaps with the Maltese SRR and this circumstance led in the past to attempts by the Maltese authorities to drop their SAR responsibilities claiming that distress cases were happening in this vast area. Another complex topic regards the presence, in international waters which is part of the Maltese SRR, of Tunisian oil platforms. Also, in these cases the coordination of SAR operations have been contested and were often subject to a “ping-pong” responsibility from the involved state authorities.
Towards the declaration of a huge Tunisian SRR?
In a research document published by the IMO Institute (International Maritime Organization), Akram Boubakri (Lieutenant Commander, Head, Maritime Affairs, Tunisian Coast Guard according to IMO Institute website) wrote that at the beginning of 2020, Tunisia officially submitted the coordinates of the Tunisian SRR to the IMO. According to this document, these new coordinates, still pending the notification of consideration by the IMO, would cover a large area, creating two overlapping areas with neighboring SAR zones – the first one with Libya, the second one with Malta* (see map below):
*This delimitation has to be confirmed (tbc). Nothing proves that the coordinates mentioned in the article were actually submitted to the IMO
As several media outlets have reported, the declaration of an official Tunisian SRR is a project supported by the European Union, which was notably put back on the table on the occasion of the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding signed in July 2023 between the EU and Tunisia.
During the summer 2023, the Civil MRCC legal team initiated a freedom of information access request to the Tunisian authorities to clarify the current status of the Tunisian SRR. The Tunisian Ministry of Transport/the Office of the Merchant Navy and Ports replied that”[n]o legal text has yet been published defining the geographical marine limits of the search and rescue zone stipulated in the 1979 International Convention for Search and Rescue […]. We would like to inform you that the National Committee for the Law of the Sea, chaired by the Ministry of National Defence, has submitted a draft on this subject, which has been sent in 2019 to the International Maritime Organisation through the Ministry of Transport.” A recourse to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Interior was sent but no reply was received yet.
Replying in December 2023 to a freedom of information access request initiated by the Civil MRCC, the IMO stated that “Tunisia has not communicated their established search and rescue region to the IMO Secretariat.” However, on November 3, 2023, the Tunisian Ministerial Council adopted a “draft law on the regulation of search and rescue at sea in Tunisia’s area of responsibility.” A text which, according to FTDES, provides for the creation of a Tunisian SAR zone, although it has not yet been published. While the text still has to be ratified by the parliament, it is quite clear that the Tunisian authorities are currently making concrete steps to align on the IMO standards and, by doing so, on the EU agenda.
Conclusion: A EU strategy to escape from its SAR responsibilities
While some analysts have seen the drop in arrivals in Italy from Tunisia in recent months as a sign of the “success” of the European Union’s strategy to close its borders (in November, a drop of over 80% compared to the summer months), in reality, the evolution of these policies proves that reinforcing a border only shifts migratory routes. From autumn onwards, the Libyan route has seen an increase in traffic, with many departing from the east of the country. These analyses fail to consider the agency of people on the move, and the constant reinvention of strategies for transgressing borders.
While condemning the generalization of a regime of refoulement by proxy in the central Mediterranean and the continued brutalization of the border regime, the Civil MRCC aims to give visibility to the autonomy of migration and non-stop solidarity struggles for freedom of movement!
Picture: Wooden boat wrecked in Lampedusa, Credit Luigi Geroldi