Global Agenda

The EU and Tunisia have concluded an agreement to tackle the issue of irregular migration. Does it violate human rights?

Bianka Niňajová

The leaders of the European Union and Tunisia signed an agreement aimed at combating illegal migration and strengthening their economic ties. This happened on Sunday, July 16, after several weeks of intense negotiations about the increasing number of refugees heading from Tunisia to the European continent. The North African country is an important starting point for thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better life in Europe. However, the number of refugees has increased significantly in recent months. Italy, the closest European mainland for African refugees, says more than 75 000 people have already arrived in Europe this year. At the same time last year, the numbers were just under 32 000.

Ursula von der Leyen, who visited Tunisia with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Italian Prime Minister Giorgio Meloni, says that the aim of the agreement is to “invest in common prosperity.” The President of the European Commission also emphasised the need for better cooperation in the fight against “networks of smugglers and human traffickers.” The signed memorandum will come into force when it is approved by all the states of the European Union.

The so-called “comprehensive strategic partnership” comprises five pillars: macroeconomic stability, trade and investment, the transition to green energy, and legal immigration. Each of the categories includes different investment projects and cooperation. Although the memorandum itself does not contain the exact amounts, it is clear from the information published so far that €150 million will go to support the Tunisian Government and the necessary economic reforms. In the past years, pandemics, rising inflation, and price increases have pushed the country to the verge of bankruptcy. Tunisia also faces long-standing high unemployment, and the decline of democratic principles under the rule of President Said has led foreign investors to leave. The European Union fears that the poor economic and social situation in the country could lead to Tunisians seeking to flee closer to European borders. Further financial support of €10 million will go to support a student exchange program and €65 million to modernise Tunisian schools. €307.6 million is intended for the development of the Elmed energy project between Tunisia and Italy. An underwater electricity interconnection between the two countries should boost the renewable energy trade. Brussels will also contribute €150 million to the construction of the Medusa project, which will connect up to 11 Mediterranean countries through fibre-optic technology. Von der Leyen indicated that Brussels is ready to offer up to €900 million to the African country in the coming years. Financing of the projects is to be ensured partly in the form of grants from the EU budget and partly through loans from the European Investment Bank.

The most important part of the signed memorandum is a €105 million aid package designed to combat people smuggling and increase coordination in search and rescue operations. The parties agreed on joint control of the borders and the urgent return of those asylum seekers whose applications were rejected. The agreement, which should help solve the migration issue, comes at a time when Tunisia has long been criticised for its mistreatment of African refugees. The situation has become even more heated after a Tunisian man was killed in an argument between locals in the Tunisian town of Sfax and refugees from other parts of Africa. A few days later, news spread around the world about the Libyan border guard rescuing hundreds of migrants who the Tunisian authorities had taken to a desert area bordering Libya and Algeria. Videos circulated on the Internet showing men, women and children, some even injured, stranded without food or water. In the heat, sometimes reaching 40°C, people sat on the sand and hid under bushes. According to several testimonies, Tunisian soldiers beat the refugees, burned their passports, destroyed their phones and then took them to an uninhabited zone. This left the refugees trapped in the area without any possibility of returning to Tunisia or crossing the Libyan border. Several people lost their lives in inhospitable conditions, and women were raped by Libyan men.

But this is not the first time a North African country has received a financial package from the European Union to help manage migration. Over the last decade, European countries have provided millions of euros to Tunisia, which has enabled the country to strengthen its coastguard, training and equipment. However, expert opinions differ on the effectiveness of the new migration agreement. Many warn that by concluding the agreement, Brussels is showing its approval of the Tunisian President’s autocratic rule and accuses the EU of resigning itself to respect for human rights in exchange for externalising control of its borders. Furthermore, it looks as if Tunisia will not just obediently comply with Brussels’ demands. Only shortly after the agreement was concluded, the country declared that it refuses to become a ‘reception centre’ for refugees who enter Europe via Tunisia and are rejected. The African country is determined to accept only Tunisians who have entered Europe illegally. Although this may involve a significant number of people, it may not be the desired solution for Brussels.

Photo credit:

The Latest