Tunisia’s migration dilemma

On 3 June, a boat packed with over 180 migrants sank off the Tunisian coast, near the island of Kerkennah, causing the tragic death of at least 100 persons. The accident probably represents Tunisia’s deadliest migrant shipwreck and brings again to the fore the upsurge of irregular migration from the country – also known as el-harga in Tunisian. 

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      With the exception of the massive irregular influx into Europe of more than 28,000 Tunisians at the wake of the revolution, Tunisian arrivals in Italy decreased substantially between 2012 and 2016 as border controls were restored.

      The situation has changed since mid-2017, bringing again Tunisia under the spotlight.

      More than 1900 Tunisians arrived in Italy since the beginning of this year, making Tunisia the first registered nationality of arrivals in Italy so far. What could explain this new spike in departures from the country?

      Drivers of migration from Tunisia

      A wide array of complex and interrelated factors could explain this recent upsurge in migration.

      Domestically, persistently high unemployment and the perceived lack of economic prospects continue to drive people to look for alternatives elsewhere, especially against dwindling trust in the government’s ability to improve conditions. Not only do young people feel economically alienated but they also remain largely disconnected from the political life. This fuels feelings of non-belonging to their local communities.

      Besides, there is a persistent number of primary and secondary school dropouts, estimated at around 100,000 pupils per year, mostly as a result of worsening conditions in public schools but also of the increasing perception that education will not help achieve social upward mobility.

      Some of these young dropouts then decide to risk their lives at sea, sometimes funded by their families and lured by videos on social media uploaded by Tunisian migrants who ‘successfully’ reached Europe. These different conditions play into the interest of smugglers who prey on people’s vulnerability to grow their business.

      The Tunisian context should not be separated from a broader increase in smuggling activities across North Africa as departures have increased from Algeria and Morocco as well. Yet, the spike in departures from Tunisia cannot be the result of re-routing following reduced sea-crossings from Libya since, currently, more than 90% of migrants departing from Tunisia are Tunisians. The number of arrested foreigners attempting to leave from Tunisia only increased slightly from 71 in 2016 to 271 in 2017.

      The Tunisian government’s response

      The government’s reaction to the recent boat incident has been mixed. The Head of Government Youssef Chahed undertook a visit to Kerkennah only two days after the accident, showing a rather slow official response compared to the scale of the tragedy.

      As questions were raised about how preparations for this sea-crossing went unnoticed by security officers, an investigation has been launched to look into possible complicity between the smugglers and some of the security personnel. While the results of the investigation are yet to be revealed, first evidence shows that human and logistical capacities in the island of Kerkennah remain largely limited, challenging the security officers’ ability to adequately respond. A decision to establish a security centre in the island since October 2017 has not yet been implemented and security offices burnt since the revolution have not been restored. Following Chahed’s visit to the island, the Interior Minister was dismissed – a move likely triggered by the boat accident.

      The current situation calls for for urgent measures to enhance border management but also to pursue the implementation of the longer-term National Strategy for Migration that was approved earlier this year. The strategy seeks to provide a comprehensive framework to deal with the evolving migration landscape. The implementation of the strategy – planned to start this year – will involve the formation of an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the process. This, however, might be challenged by the limited financial resources, as the country is in dire economic conditions and there is an increasing pressure on the government’s budget, which could lead to de-prioritise this work.

      An easy target for the EU?

      The increase in departures, but even more so the country’s location in a volatile region characterised by irregular migration, is making Tunisia a target of EU policies of externalising border management. Most recently, this is evidenced by a series of statements from European officials.

      Last week, the new Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini accused Tunisia of deliberately sending criminals to Italy, a statement that was not well received in Tunis. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz seeks to put forth a proposal to send EU border guards to North Africa, where Tunisia would be a very likely target for such a measure. In the same logic, Belgium’s State Secretary for Asylum Policy and Migration announced that it is necessary to pursue a deal with Tunisia to host intercepted migrants at sea – an idea that has been discussed in EU policy circles for some time. As Italy is closing its ports to migrant rescue ships, the search for an alternative reception centre for migrants in North Africa could gain prominence. The next Austrian EU presidency could thus push for a new migrant deal with Tunisia, similar to the one with Turkey.

      The idea of such a deal, however, would be in contrast with rather unfruitful talks between the EU and Tunisia on migration. Both parties are currently negotiating readmission and visa facilitation agreements, which has been anything but smooth. The clause on the readmission of third country nationals (TCN) is one of the most contentious points in the negotiations. Returning TCN is not a legal duty for Tunisia and civil society has voiced strong opposition to cooperation in this area.

      While some European countries would like to see Tunisia turn into a safe haven to host migrants, such calls seem to ignore Tunisia’s internal dynamics and strong resistance to turning the country into a camp for rejected migrants.

      Balancing short- and long-term objectives

      These recent developments show that migration might not stay on the backburner of the Tunisian domestic agenda for longer. Domestically, the need to seal the borders should not distract the country from the importance of pursuing long-term solutions to address migration and its related dynamics. Beyond securing its own borders and supporting the EU in managing theirs, Tunisia’s interest lies in creating hope for young Tunisians in the country by investing in job creation, reforming education, and promoting regional development.

      Externally, the migration dossier is likely to fuel mistrust between Tunisia and the EU as clearly different priorities and perceptions continue to underpin cooperation. Rather than pushing its ‘privileged’ partner into a cumbersome deal, the EU could focus on supporting the country in the implementation of its own comprehensive migration strategy as well as cooperate on shared interests of border management with due respect to Tunisia’s sovereignty.

      The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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