Alarm phone Tunis

In Tunisia, the European Union and its member states continue to deepen their policies of outsourcing maritime controls, pursuing the dangerous and illusory goal of preventing arrivals on Italian shores at all costs.  On April 17, the head of the Italian government, Giorgia Meloni, made her fourth visit to Tunisia in less than a year. While discussions revolved around strengthening cooperation between the two countries, the topic of combating so-called “irregular” immigration was once again the ultimate focus of these exchanges, particularly following the increased number of people crossing to Italy by boat in March 2024 after a brief decrease over the winter.

On the occasion of this visit, activists gathered at the initiative of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES) in front of the Italian embassy in Tunis to protest against the murderous migration policies implemented by the two governments.

Picture: Mem-med, demonstration in Tunis in front of the Italian embassy, April 2024

Shortly before this visit, on the night of Monday to Tuesday April 15, President Kaïs Saïed reaffirmed in a video that his country would neither agree to be used as a transit or destination land for migrants, nor to become the European Union’s border guard. But while these kinds of declarations are repeated over and over again, behind this sovereignty rhetoric, the Tunisian President continues to allow European outsourcing policies to gain ground.

For its part, the European Union is also continuing to strengthen the Tunisian authorities’ maritime control capacities, with the provision of patrol boats and drones to monitor coastal surveillance.

As the Civil MRCC has already shown, in an attempt to reproduce in Tunisia the regime of “refoulement by proxy” set up in Libya a few years earlier, the EU is relying on 4 pillars: strengthening the capacities of the Tunisian coastguard (equipment and training), setting up a coastal surveillance system, creating an official MRCC (National Maritime Search and Rescue Coordination Center) and declaring a search and rescue zone (SAR zone) in Tunisia.

A few weeks ago, a new step was taken with the adoption of decree no. 2024-181 of April 5, 2024, which organizes maritime search and rescue in Tunisia. It provides for the creation of a “National Maritime Search and Rescue Coordination Center” within the “National Maritime Surveillance Service”, a structure that already exists but is not active. Within this MRCC, a “national coordination unit” is created, responsible for drawing up a national maritime search and rescue plan, including the delimitation of the Tunisian area of responsibility. In this way, more and more ingredients were brought together for the systematization of maritime refoulements to Tunisia.

Furthermore, the adoption of the “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” by the European Parliament on April 10, 2024, has raised fears of the outsourcing of European asylum policies to Tunisia. The extension of the “safe third country” principle, enshrined in the pact, means that asylum applications from people arriving in Europe can be declared “inadmissible” if they have transited through a so-called “safe third country” where they could have applied for asylum. Although Tunisia still has no national asylum framework, and various civil society organizations have repeatedly highlighted the serious violations of rights suffered by asylum seekers and recognized refugees, Tunisia remains one of the favored countries for applying this concept, along the lines of the EU-Turkey agreement.

Migration cooperation between the EU and Tunisia is intensifying, despite the brutal violence committed against exiles on Tunisian territory. As various Tunisian and transnational civil society organizations pointed out in a joint statement published at the beginning of April, “more than a year after the communiqué issued by the Presidency of the Tunisian Republic at the end of the National Security Council meeting, which linked the presence of migrants ‘to a plot to alter the demographic composition of Tunisia’, systematic violations and racist and xenophobic campaigns targeting sub-Saharan migrants in Tunisia continue, and remain unpunished to this day.” Among other things, the organizations denounce the practices of refoulements at the Libyan and Algerian borders, forced population displacements, violent interceptions of boats attempting to flee the country, and the criminalization of solidarity on the part of those who try to help them.

At the beginning of May, a new wave of repression was unleashed against people on the move. During a Security Council meeting, the Tunisian President welcomed the fact that 400 people had been deported to Algeria. The repression extended to civil society organizations working in solidarity with migrants. Several NGO representatives were arrested for different charges which are still unclear.   

It is in this context of serious rights violations and violence against people on the move that European states continue their race to outsource border control to Tunisia. Although the voices attempting to denounce these outrageous policies remain largely unheard, on April 12, 2024, the European Ombudsman underlined his concern regarding the lack of any prior assessment of the impact on human rights, particularly with regard to the “Migration and Mobility” pillar of the Memorandum of Understanding signed between Tunisia and the European Union, and asked the Commission to “answer a series of questions on how it intends to monitor the human rights impact of the actions provided for in the Memorandum of Understanding and what measures it has envisaged, including with regard to the possible suspension of EU funding, if identified.”

Little hope for the people on the move, who in the meantime continue to exercise their right to freedom of movement and to brave this inhumane border regime. On the first weekend in April, over 1,500 people disembarked on the island of Lampedusa. In mid-April, a health worker in the coastal region of Sfax reported that almost 100 bodies of migrants who had died in shipwrecks were waiting to be buried in the morgue.  

Another proof that these policies are only making crossings more dangerous…