The focus of the EU remains deterrence rather than development and human rights amid new heated debate over EU Tunisia deal. As hundreds of migrants have lost their lives in floods, the EU supported so-called Libyan Coast Guard continues abuse and pullbacks of migrants.   

UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has warned over Europe’s failure to fund humanitarian aid to African countries and urged a wide-ranging intervention including economic resources, stabilization of conflicts, as well as aid to countries of transit and departure. However, according to a report from Oxfam published on 21 September, the focus remains on deterrence: “The EU is in danger of violating global and EU aid rules by using aid to halt migration. This is according to Oxfam’s new report, From Development to Deterrence, which sheds light on how the EU employs its aid budget to outsource migration control to countries in Africa. The report reveals that 6 out of the 16 identified migration activities in Niger, Libya and Tunisia potentially breach aid rules. These 6 activities total €667 million, with the total funds analysed amounting to approximately €1 billion”. The report was debated at the Commission midday press briefing on 21 September with officials providing rather abstract response to critical questions.

Irregular arrivals of migrants in Italy via the Mediterranean from North Africa amounted to almost 114,300 between January and August 2023, almost double the number in the same period of 2022,according to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex). In response to increased arrivals in Lampedusa, the Commission has hinted at interest in a naval blockade on the Mediterranean and offered a 10-point plan with a significant focus on prevention of departures and returns including the implementation of the controversial EU-Tunisia deal that has been widely questioned including by the European Ombudsman and MEPs. Meanwhile, EU Foreign Affairs chief Joseph Borrell seems less than impressed with the commission’s unilateral action when the president “rushed” into signing the memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Tunisia in July flanked by Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte. “As you know … in July, several member states expressed their incomprehension regarding the commission’s unilateral action on the conclusion of this [memorandum of understanding] and concerns about some of its contents,” Borrell wrote in a letter to Olivér Várhelyi, the European commissioner for neighbouring countries. Guardian reports how foreign affairs ministers had “observed the proper steps of the adoption procedure had not been followed” by the commission and that accordingly the MoU could not be “considered a valid template for future agreements”. Further: “In a broadside against Meloni and Rutte”, Borrell wrote that “the participation in the negotiation and the signing ceremony of a limited number of EU heads of government does not make up for the institutional balance between the council and the commission”.

Eve Geddie, Director of Amnesty International’s EU office, describes EU cooperation with Tunisia as the repetition of “an old and dangerous mistake”. In an opinion published on 21 September, Geddie writes: “even after the agreement was reached, Tunisian authorities continued to force migrants to the Libyan border, where many languished in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, with international media reporting numerous deaths. Shockingly, EU leaders have yet to publicly condemn these violations” adding: “Most worryingly, this agreement was signed with no human rights conditions in place, no assessment or monitoring of its human rights impact and no mechanism to suspend cooperation in case of abuse. The European Ombudsman announced last week that she has requested the Commission clarify how it will ensure human rights will be respected by Tunisia”. On the same day, Claudio Francavilla,  a senior EU advocate at Human Rights Watch stated: “finding himself unable to address the country’s deep economic crisis, Saied resorted to a textbook populism – attacking scapegoats. For Saied, that means Black African migrants and asylum seekers — also a favorite target for Europe’s far right. Blamed for all the country’s ills, while dehumanized and defamed by hate speech (uttered by Saied himself), Black Africans in Tunisia have been suffering horrendous abuses, including violence, discrimination and collective expulsion on Tunisia’s land borders, leading to dozens of deaths”. On 18 September, MSF Sea rescuing people in the central Mediterranean reported: “Kidnapping, torture and arbitrary detention. As many people are fleeing Tunisia, these are the main stories that MSF team have been collecting recently on board the Geo Barents”. On 19 September, Al Jazeera described how while “Europe frets over migration; Tunisia moves refugees to departure points”. The outlet reports how “undocumented Black people – said by some to number in their thousands – were rounded up and put on buses before being driven out of Sfax to unknown locations” threatened with beatings to enter buses. Thousands of people deported from Sfax ending up in Al Amra – known as a hub for people smuggling – had received no food, water or shelter and no explanation of their expulsion except one recalling a police officer saying the city was “dirty”. Meanwhile, reports of desert deportations by Tunisian authorities continue to mount. The NGO hotline, Alarm Phone reported on 20 September: “Expulsed into the desert! A group of people called us & reported they were intercepted by the Tunisian Coast Guard, taken to the Tunisian-Algerian border & left in the desert without food & water! Tunisian authorities continue these outrageous practices with the EU support!”. At the Middle East Global Summit, Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nabil Ammar, referenced the ‘migration crisis’ stating that his country was in “in an impossible situation,” adding “Every crisis we are suffering from, we have no responsibility in it”. Reportedly, Ammar appeared visibly upset when questioned about the the backsliding of democratic norms and jailing of political opponents.

War-torn Libya notorious for human rights violations and severe abuse against migrants was recently hit by a natural disaster adding another layer of risk to the already dire situation in the country. Following the deadly floods caused by Storm Daniel, Refugees in Libya released a statement expressing “solidarity with the people of Eastern Libya, who are now facing a devastating situation”. The organisation further states: “In expressing our solidarity with all the people affected by this massacre, we call for a deeper intersection of our struggle for justice, as there is no climate justice without decolonisation, without anti-racist struggles, without no-border migrant justice”. Meanwhile, Hanan Salah, Human Rights Watch (HRW) senior researcher for Middle East and North Africa, described Eastern Libya as a hub for people on the move and stated: “I’m very concerned about migrant communities who are in the cities and in the towns in eastern Libya – especially their access to food, water, and basic needs. They were just trying to survive – even before this disaster”.  According to UN sources, some 400 migrants are among the victims of the floods. Widespread condolences including by the Libyan authorities and the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) Greece, followed the deaths of five members of a Greek relief mission in a traffic accident on the way to Derna. Meanwhile, reporting on a car accident leaving a young Ethiopian man in critical condition, Refugees in Libya stated: “Tragic incidents have occurred since 2021, resulting in the loss of lives for many children who were advocating for better treatment at the UNHCR headquarters in Tripoli”.  According to the organisation: “Since early July, approximately 200 women and children have been forced to sleep outside” UNHCR headquarters in Tripoli “with no alternative”.

Pullbacks to Libya and abuse by the EU-supported so-called Libyan Coast Guard continue. Sea-Watch International reported on 19 September how its rescue vessel Aurora prevented a pullback of 40 people while four had reportedly already died. The organisation further stated: “for others, help arrived too late. We witnessed individuals aboard the so-called Libyan coastguard vessel, now forcibly returning to Libya. The Libyan patrol vessel tried to intimidate our ship and retrieved the abandoned engines of the wooden boat”. On 20 September, Alarm Phone reported on 25 people in distress in Benghazi adding: “Stop the shooting! A relative of someone on board told us that the people in distress were being shot at from a boat carrying a Libyan flag. We cannot reach this group anymore and we fear for their lives. We demand an immediate rescue to a place of safety! Libya is not safe!”.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), between 10 and 16 September, 276 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya. The total number of people intercepted and returned in 2023 so far has reached almost 11,000.

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