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Home » EU-Tunisia Migration Deal: Encouraging the People Smugglers?

EU-Tunisia Migration Deal: Encouraging the People Smugglers?

by Benoy Mazumdar
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Africans in Tunisia, who are trying to make their way to Europe via irregular migration routes, are unimpressed with the new “strategic agreement” on migration — that’s if they’ve heard of it at all.

The best thing would be to return to Nigeria, says Victor Ambedane, who’s been in Tunisia for over six months now.

Ambedane has tried to leave the country twice by crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. But he’s also failed twice. The second time was worse, he says. And recently, back in Tunisia, he had all his possessions stolen.

“We were attacked by the local mafia,” he told DW. “They came to our house and they took my mobile phone, my money and everything. Now I don’t have anything. I’ve been sleeping rough for a week now.”

Ambedane says he’s given up on trying to get to Europe now. But it doesn’t have anything to do with the new “strategic partnership” the European Union agreed upon with the Tunisian government this month. In fact, Ambedane says, he hasn’t even heard about it.

“I just don’t know what I am going to do now,” he told DW. “I’m not even thinking about trying to get to Europe. I have two kids and my wife in Nigeria and I just want to go back. I’m begging God, I’m begging the Tunisian government, to come to my assistance and just send me back.”

Victor Ambedane: 'I just don't know what I am going to do now' | Photo: Wahed Dahech
Victor Ambedane: ‘I just don’t know what I am going to do now’ | Photo: Wahed Dahech

EU deal done with an autocrat

At the moment, the EU-Tunisia agreement is only a memorandum of understanding — that is, it is still only a declaration of political intentions. Eventually the various plans in it, which address issues like economic stability in Tunisia, climate change and migration, will be realized after they have been approved by individual EU member states.

Human rights activists on both sides of the Mediterranean are already critical though, complaining that it shows the direction the EU is heading in. They say it will only further restrict pathways to migration and possibilities for asylum seekers looking for refuge.

The memorandum is one sided and favors the EU, says Ramadan Ben Omar, an official at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights. Additionally it was signed in a non-democratic environment, he noted, referring to the fact that Tunisia’s President Kais Saied has been acting in an increasingly autocratic way since he took control of the country in what was described as a “constitutional coup” in July 2021.

The agreement is really only about Europe trying to prevent irregular migration, Ben Omar argues. The fact that the agreement includes support for the Tunisian economy is just window dressing, he says.

Left in the desert without water

The head of the Europe division at refugee rights advocate, Pro Asyl, sees it similarly. “We see a partner of the EU spreading hate speech against sub-Saharan refugees,” Karl Popp told DW, referring to remarks that Saied has made. “We see that hundreds of people have been abandoned in the desert near Libya. A deal under such circumstances does not bode well. It is so clearly about an autocrat intercepting people heading for Europe on boats.” 

Over the past few weeks, the Tunisian authorities have been increasingly tough on sub-Saharan asylum seekers. Earlier this month there were violent clashes between African migrants, locals and the security forces after a Tunisian man was stabbed and died in the southern Tunisian city of Sfax. 

After the violence, Tunisian authorities forcibly took around 800 African migrants to the border with Libya, a place in the middle of the desert. Some were left stranded without supplies or shelter in the zone between the two borders. Others were brought to the border with Algeria and left to survive in similarly life-threatening conditions. The migrants were there for several days before authorities did anything for them.

Reports by the news agency AFP, whose journalists visited the border area, described migrants in an uninhabited area close to the town of Al Assah, as exhausted and dehydrated, desperately trying to shelter from the sun and summer heat.

Migrants were taken to dangerous border areas in the desert after unrest in Sfax earlier this month | Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP
Migrants were taken to dangerous border areas in the desert after unrest in Sfax earlier this month | Photo: Mahmud Turkia/AFP

Tunisia’s worrying, potentially deadly, treatment of migrants inside the country is unlikely to improve thanks to the new European agreement, says Tunisian human rights activist, Ben Omar.

The deal basically turns Tunisia into part of the European border guard, he suggests, adding that more deportations would be facilitated if “reception camps” for asylum seekers are established on Tunisian soil. This week the Tunisian government rejected the idea of setting up camps for the EU’s rejected asylum seekers and said it would only take back Tunisians from Europe.

‘Affront to European values’

The EU’s explanation that it is doing all this in order to act more effectively against people smugglers is not really believable either, Pro Asyl’s Popp complains.

“If you want to combat the people smugglers you actually need to offer legal pathways [to migration],” he told DW. “But if you’re just barricading yourself in, you’re more likely to be encouraging demand for the smuggling sector. The fight against people smuggling actually becomes a fight against those seeking protection. It’s a way to ensure they never even arrive in Europe.”

There are women and children among the migrants in Tunisia, who are trying to get to Europe | Photo: Wahed Dahech
There are women and children among the migrants in Tunisia, who are trying to get to Europe | Photo: Wahed Dahech

The new deal is also “an affront to professed European values,” Tarek Megerisi, a senior policy fellow for the North Africa and Middle East program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said in a statement this week. “[It] will do little to stop migration, just make it easier for Europeans to return the Tunisians that survive the trip.”

Back in the city of Sfax, Meriem Taba, who’s originally from Guinea in west Africa, told DW that she had not heard anything about the new Tunisian-EU deal either. She still wants to try and get to Europe and says nothing will make her give this up, even if things are hard in Tunisia.

She has been arrested twice here already. “So far it’s not going that well,” she admits. “We’re just so tired.”

The route she is planning to take, over the Mediterranean to Italy, to try to get to Europe is exactly that which the Europeans want to make a lot more difficult, with the help of Tunisian authorities.

“We just want to help our families,” Taba says of her plans. “We don’t want to go home.”

Source : InfoMigrants

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