EU’s signing of an agreement for a “strategic and comprehensive partnership” with the Tunisian regime has sparked severe critique from MEPs, experts and human rights organisations. Meanwhile, violence and crackdown on Sub-Saharan Africans continue including purges to border areas of Libya and Algeria.

On 16 July, the EU and Tunisia signed a memorandum of understanding for a “strategic and comprehensive partnership” including to combat irregular migration hailed by European Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen as “a template, a blueprint for the future, for partnerships with other countries in the region”. As part of the deal, the European Commission will provide the North African state with 675 million euros this year, of which 105 million Euro are allocated for migration management, including the fight against “irregular departures”, returns of foreigners from Tunisia to their countries of origin, returns of Tunisians without permission to remain in the EU, support for the Tunisian coastguard with new equipment and strengthen borders. Reportedly, the memorandum does not reference the 900 million Euro promised by the EU if President Saied’s government accepts an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan programme of 1.5 billion Euro. According to a statement released by the Commission on the day of the signing: “President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, the Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in a Team Europe spirit, alongside the President of Tunisia, Kaïs Saied have agreed to implement the comprehensive partnership package announced jointly on 11 June 2023”. “Migration is a significant element of the agreement we have signed today,” Rutte told media, continuing: “It is essential to gain more control of irregular migration”. Meloni stated: “a new and important step to deal with the migration crisis” while Von der Leyen also pointed to migration as an essential element of the agreement: “We need an effective cooperation, more than ever” she said, announcing greater cooperation against “networks of smugglers and traffickers”. Professor of EU Law, Alberto Alemanno posed a series of questions related to the agreement and the role of Team Europe: “Who’s acting in Tunisia? The Council of the EU (where’s Spain’s rotating president? The EU Commission? On whose behalf? And on what legal basis? What’s the role of the Italian and Dutch governments here? Is the principle of good administration guaranteed by Team Europe – whatever that is?”. Renew Europe MEP, Sophie in ‘t Veld called Team Europe a new EU institution seemingly with “super powers” magically appearing and responded: “National government leaders vehemently oppose Treaty change. It is easy to see why. They don’t need to change the Treaties, they just ignore them and get away with it. Much easier. Bonus: without the nuisance of democratic accountability and scrutiny”. In ‘t Veld further commented “Is it a bird? Is it an airplane? No! It is Team Europe! (drum rolls). Ignoring the Treaties dressed up as pragmatism”. Italy’s Democratic Party (PD) has denounced the agreement as “an attempt to outsource borders without taking into account respect for democracy and human rights”. However, European Commission Vice President, Margaritis Schinas praised Italy’s migration efforts including the “very intense” work to ensure an agreement with Tunisia. The North African state has emerged as a main departure point for Tunisians as well as others seeking to enter Europe. According to the Commission 45,000 people have left Tunisia to attempt to reach Europe, mainly through Italy, via the central Mediterranean in 2023 so far, of which 5,000 were Tunisian citizens.

The agreement has sparked severe and widespread critique at the political level, as well as by human rights experts and NGOs. MEPs denounced the cooperation with the Tunisian dictatorship. Birgit Sippel from S&D said: “We are now again financing an autocrat without political, democratic scrutiny here in the house. This will not be a solution. It will strengthen an autocrat in Tunisia”. “Anyone who signs a migration agreement with a country like Tunisia, which drives migrants into the desert to die, is making a mockery of human rights and is expressly guilty of the deaths of even more people fleeing,” said Left MEP, Cornelia Ernst, calling for the agreement to be withdrawn. Renew Europe MEP, Sophie in ‘t Veld said: “It’s very clear: a deal has been made with a dictator who’s cruel, who’s unreliable”. Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović warned that “Council of Europe member states should insist on clear human rights safeguards in any further migration co-operation with Tunisia. According to Mijatović: “The text of the Memorandum of Understanding between the EU and Tunisia relating to migration only includes very general language on human rights, and no concrete indication of whether safeguards would be put in place or what those would be”. Eve Geddie, Advocacy Director at Amnesty International’s EU office stated: “This ill-judged agreement, signed despite mounting evidence of serious human rights abuses by authorities, will result in a dangerous expansion of already failed migration policies and signals EU acceptance of increasingly repressive behaviour by Tunisia’s president and government”. The organisation further pointed out that the deal “makes EU complicit’ in abuses against asylum seekers, refugees and migrants”. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned that the deal “risks driving migrants and refugees onto even more dangerous routes”. On 18 July, UN experts raised concern “about Tunisia’s allegedly discriminatory treatment of sub-Saharan migrants, and urged the authorities to take urgent measures to stop collective expulsions and protect the human rights of all migrants”. “Collective expulsions are prohibited under international law,” the UN experts said, noting “Deporting migrants, refugees and asylum-seekers without conducting an individual and objective risk assessment of their exposure to human rights violations upon return amounts to refoulement, prohibited under international human rights law”. Migration expert and associate professor at Utrecht University, Ilse van Liempt stated: ‘We have seen in the past that if a country stops people from passing through, they will look for other routes”. She also believes that the people smugglers the agreement claims to battle will in fact benefit: “If migrants become more dependent on smugglers, which is happening now, they can charge more money. The more border controls are tightened up, the more opportunities there are for people smugglers”. According to a Senior EU official, Tunisian President Kais Saied has underlined that Tunisia refuses to be a “reception centre” for irregular migrants and will not act as the EU’s “border guard.

Amnesty International published a briefing describing how: “Two years after President Kais Saied’s power grab, the state of human rights in Tunisia has continued to deteriorate. Institutional safeguards for their protection were almost entirely dismantled, the judiciary has lost guarantees for its independence, military courts have increasingly targeted critics of the president with repressive laws while the right to freedom of expression has dramatically shrunk. Since 25 July 2021, courts have opened investigations and, in some cases, trials against at least 39 people for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression”. Meanwhile, Saied notorious for hate speech and his regimes harsh targeting of migrants continues to deflect critique of abuse from NGOs as “false facts”. In the context of remittances – allegedly of 1 billion USD – received by sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia from their home countries, the Tunisian President recently stated: “This figure is shocking and indicates that Tunisia is being targeted”. Human Rights Watch commented on the ongoing crack-down and violence against migrants by the regime, stating: “The Tunisian police, military, and national guard including the coast guard have committed serious abuses against Black African migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers”. According to the organisation: “Documented abuses include beatings, use of excessive force, some cases of torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, collective expulsions, dangerous actions at sea, forced evictions, and theft of money and belongings”. In the capital Tunis, migrants are sleeping rough and suffering in the heat that has reached 50 degrees Celsius: “We cannot endure this,” said Kelly, one of around 100 people sleeping outside an IOM building. “We don’t feel rested. Every day we are stressed.”

The NGO hotline, Alarm Phone stated on 17 July: “If Tunisia carries out mass deportations, if Algerian and Libyan security forces assault and block the deported, if the EU politically sanctions and financially supports such violations, and International Organisations remain silent – what can we do when receiving calls from people who are slowly dying?”. Al Jazeera reported on 19 July on continued expulsions: “At least three videos provided by NGOs and Libyan border agencies have appeared since Sunday, appearing to show Tunisian security services expelling Black men, women and children from the territory to the border with Libya, where they were forced at gunpoint to walk into the desert without food and water”. A member of a Libyan border patrol unit, told media on 16 July “The number of migrants keep rising every day,” adding that the unit had rescued “50 to 70 migrants”. Footage released by Euronews reveals humiliating scenes of a Libyan border guard pouring water onto the head of a kneeling youth from a patrol car window. “You know Tunisia’s violence has hit new nadirs when *Libyan security* claims to rescue migrants from its depredations. For its part, the EU—driven by voters’ anti-migrant sentiments—finds Saied’s bloody-fisted racism crass, but ultimately worth bankrolling to mitigate migration,” academic and MENA expert, Monica Marks commented. Commenting on the ongoing expulsions of migrants by the Tunisian regime to border areas with Libya and Algeria, Pope Francis stated on 23 July: “Thousands of migrants from the northern part of Africa have been trapped and abandoned in desert areas for weeks. I appeal in particular to European and African heads of State to provide urgent relief and aid to these brothers and sisters”. On the same day the UN Refugee agency (UNHCR) mourned “the tragic death of a Sudanese refugee who died yesterday in Tunisia, near the Libyan border. According to Tunisian authorities who found him, he died from malnutrition”. Libya’s interior ministry said in a statement on 24 July that the bodies of five sub-Saharan migrants had been recovered in a desolate area near the border between Libya and Tunisia. The death toll at the border remains unknown but reports continue and on 26 July, Refugees in Libya revealed graphic footage shot by Libyan Border Guards, with the text: “It is hard to look away from these scenes of parents dying alongside their children. A few days ago it was Fati Dosso and Marie, today it is yet a faceless father, his son and two more companions whose lives have been unjustly stolen”.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on 24 July it had provided “life-saving humanitarian relief for 400 stranded migrants” stranded at the Tunisia-Libya border. Meanwhile, large uncounted numbers of refugees fleeing the violence in Sudan that has left more than three million people in displacement are forced to “eat in the streets” in Libya and urging UNHCR for assistance. Nour, who is injured and in need of amputation and lost his parents in the fighting told media: “We want them to provide us with a place to shelter us. We, as Sudanese refugees, have come here to apply for asylum, and we do not want to stay here in Libya. We only ask for asylum from organizations. We want to go anywhere safe”. The lack of safety in Libya was illustrated when UN experts recently “expressed serious concern about the situation of migrants and refugees in Libya who were allegedly held captive and tortured, subsequently released by Libyan authorities and transferred to unknown places of detention, where they are reportedly at risk of further serious human rights violations, including acts tantamount to enforced disappearance”. The Un experts underlined: “This is not an isolated incident, and we are very concerned about the situation of many more migrants and refugees, including victims of trafficking, who have also been transferred to detention centres where no humanitarian agencies, lawyers or civil society organisations have been granted access”. The EU-funded so-called Libyan Coast Guard, notorious for criminal links and human rights abuse, has been at it again. After recent incidents of firing live rounds at civilian search and rescuers and survivors, this time an Italian fishing boat was damaged after being attacked in international waters by machine gun fire. “This unprecedented act of violence has deeply shaken the Sicilian maritime community and requires a decisive and immediate response from Italian and international institutions,” the ship-owners federation said in a statement, noting also that the federation reserves the right to sue the Libyan authorities and the crew members of the patrol boat, which appears to have been donated by Italy, for this very serious attack”. A source from Italy’s foreign ministry told Reuters the Libyans had attacked on the grounds that the boat was fishing in Libyan waters. Reportedly, it is not the first time assets paid by Italy have been used by the Libyan Coast Guard to attack Italian fishing vessels. A recent investigation by Lighthouse Reports, Der Spiegel, SIRAJ, El País and Reporters United revealed that “The lead smugglers behind the Pylos shipwreck are closely linked to General Khalifa Haftar, the Libyan warlord who EU leaders are partnering with to curb migration”. Libya expert Jalel Harchaoui said the “migrant business” had been flourishing in Eastern Libya in the last 18 months. “Haftar cannot say that he’s not aware,” he added. “He can’t say that he’s not involved”. A survivor of the deadly Pylos shipwreck told the outlets: “All trips are overseen by his son, Saddam Haftar. Saddam leads the cooperation himself or assigns one of the frogmen battalions [this may have been the case for the Pylos trip] or the 2020 battalion, depending on who has more migrants to pay the fees”. According to the investigation “Militias supported by Khalifa Haftar are not only involved in smuggling, they are also active in illegal “pullbacks” of migrants in EU waters”.

Purges against sub-Saharan migrants by Tunisian authorities have also left people stranded at Tunisia’s border with Algeria where they are facing hostility and risks of expulsion. “We continue to observe deportations from Algeria to the northern border of Niger: During 15 and 16 July, a total of 1,335 (!!) people were deported to Point Zero and to Assamaka. The incidents are worrying. The humanitarian crisis is the direct result of the mass deportations”, Alarmephone Sahara stated on 19 July.

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