• Amnesty International reports worsening human rights situation in Tunisia including mass deportations of migrants six months into EU-Tunisia deal.
  • The Moroccan authorities stopped 87,000 migrants from reaching Europe in 2023.
  • The so-called Libyan coast guard continues to intercept migrant boats and inflict different forms of violence on people on the move.
  • EU enters its “golden age” of co-operation with Egypt in an attempt to extend the externalisation of migration and asylum.
  • Humanitarian agencies express concern over the increasing death toll and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza amid EU efforts to create a Palestinian state.

Six months into the EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding on migration, people continue to risk their lives by trying to reach Europe from Tunisia amid ongoing expulsions. On 23 January, the Tunisian authorities found two teenage Tunisian migrants dead in a shipping container. Two other migrants were taken to hospital after being found in a container in the port of Tunis. According to Mounir Riabi, the director of civil protection for the Tunis region, the two minors were part of a group of four young people who had been attempting to migrate to Europe by hiding in a refrigerated shipping container. They spent around eight hours in the cold container  “before the ship’s crew became aware of their presence and returned to the port of Tunis”. On the same day, the human rights activist and former member of the Tunisian parliament, Magdi Al-Karbaei, stated that the Italian authorities had buried the bodies of six Tunisian migrants without informing their families or getting their consent. Al-Karbaei said that the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was aware of the burial process, “insulted” the families of the victims by not informing them. Meanwhile, the Tunisian National Guard the Italian and Maltese coastguards continued their search operations for the 40 missing migrants who left Sfax city to on 10 January to travel to Italy. During the briefing for the members of the European Parliament’s Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs on the situation of asylum and migration in Tunisia on 23 January, Amnesty International’s foreign policy advocacy officer, Hussein Baoumi, highlighted the worsening human rights situation in the North African country and the ongoing mass arrests and expulsions of migrants amid ongoing co-operation between the EU and Tunisia. “Migration cooperation focused on externalisation of and limiting options for people seeking safety and better lives will trap people in situations where they are at risk of human rights violations”, Baumi stated, adding that such co-operation deepens dependence on governments that would “weaponise the plight the plight of migrants and refugees” to receive funding from the EU. The human rights organisation urged the EU to strengthen protection measures and asylum systems in Tunisia, and to establish clear human rights benchmarks to “preserve its credibility”. Meanwhile, Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, who had previously praised the EU-Tunisia deal noting that EU funds go to international organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees ) and the Tunisian coastguard, also acknowledged Tunisia’s ongoing and systematic practice of expulsions, saying “I can’t say that this practice has stopped. So this is of course, very concerning”.

Morocco is taking the role of “gatekeeper” of Europe’s borders “seriously”. According to a recent statement by the Moroccan Royal Armed Forces, around 87,000 migrants were stopped in 2023, a steep increase compared to the approximately 56,000 who were stopped between January and August 2022. The majority were arrested near Morocco’s western coastline, which is only 100km away from the Canary Islands. Additionally, in a recent visit to Rabat, Hans Leijtens, the executive director of the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex), outlined the steps for “closer cooperation” on border management and called Morocco a “crucial partner in Africa” despite allegations of  “extreme brutality”, especially after the Melilla tragedy. Additionally, Morocco, which received € 1.2 billion from the EU between 2014-2022, has reportedly positioned itself as a “pro-migrant destination” for geopolitical and economic interests. The kingdom ran two large regularisation campaigns in 2014 and 2017 in order to fill labour shortages while attempting to get its claim over Western Sahara recognised by the EU. Meanwhile, Spain’s Supreme Court ruled on 22 January that the authorities’ decision to send back dozens of unaccompanied child migrants from the Spanish exclave of Ceuta to Morocco in May 2021 was “illegal”. The minors who were expelled, said the court, faced a “serious risk of physical or mental suffering [as a result of] a collective expulsion of foreigners” prohibited by the European Convention on Human Rights.

NGOs including rescue ships continue to document and report on cases of pullbacks and violence by the EU-funded Libyan Coast Guard. Sea Watch International tweeted on X: “Last week: more human rights violations in the Med! The so-called Libyan coast guard intercepted a fishing boat & sent it back empty”. This is “circumstantial evidence of their cooperation with smugglers, who profit from an exploitative cycle of human suffering”, the organisation stated. Additionally, the international president of Doctors without Borders (MSF), Christos Christou, stated that “People on the move in Libya are exposed to abuse, forced labour, exploitation and arbitrary detention in unofficial and official facilities; at the hands of guards, human smugglers and traffickers and various militias who perform quasi-policing and law enforcement roles”, making the North African country a “hell for refugees and migrants”. According to the International Organization for Migration, the so-called Libyan Coast Guard intercepted 213 people between 14 and 20 January, noting that a total of 332 migrants including nine children have been forcefully returned to Libya since the beginning of this year.

On 23 January, the EU held the first high-level meeting with Egypt since the country’s presidential election in 2023 to note progress made on the joint partnership signed in 2022 and deepened co-operation on human rights, security, counter-terrorism and migration, as well as economic and social issues.  During the meeting, both sides agreed on the importance of adopting a “comprehensive approach to migration governance, creating regular migration pathways, tackling the root causes of irregular migration, combating migrant smuggling and trafficking in persons, and ensuring dignified and sustainable return of irregular migrants and reintegration”, while ensuring the protection of refugee rights. The EU and Egypt also shared their “concern” for the “disastrous” humanitarian situation in Gaza and emphasised their commitment to alleviating the human suffering in the Strip and facilitating the entry of humanitarian aid. While the EU’s neighbourhood commissioner, Olivér Várhelyi, said that the EU had entered a “golden age” of relations with Egypt, Amnesty International highlighted the fact that the meeting took place “amid increased repression of critical voices and the barring of genuine political opposition candidates”. The organisation urged the EU to “avoid the mistakes it made with Tunisia, Türkiye, and Libya”. It added that “Egyptian authorities routinely arrest refugees and migrants for entering to or staying in the country irregularly, detain them in cruel and inhuman conditions and unlawfully deport some without adequate assessment of their protection needs”.

In addition to the ongoing heavy Israeli bombardments on Gaza that have killed 25,700 people and wounded 63,740 others since 7 October, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has expressed grave concerns over the “displacement misery” amid continuous evacuation orders and the collapse of the health system. “The situation in general is deteriorating dramatically,” said United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) spokesperson Adnan Abu Hasna, noting that Rafah city in Southern Gaza was now home to 1.3 million people and “absolutely unable to cope” with such an influx amid widespread outbreaks of diseases, including meningitis, hepatitis C and intestinal and skin diseases. Elsewhere, the EU expressed its concern to the UN Security Council over the deepening humanitarian situation in Gaza, including the high risk of famine amid the ongoing closure of borders, and stated that it would continue its support to UNRWA and other humanitarian agencies. Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers held a series of meetings on 22 January with their counterparts from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and key Arab nations to discuss the situation in Gaza and prospects for a future peace settlement. While EU foreign ministers had aimed to push for the creation of a Palestinian state to “achieve peace in the Middle East” despite the Israeli prime minister’s rejection of the idea, Israel’s foreign minister, Israel Katz, used the meeting to promote his country’s plan to build an artificial island off the Gazan coast. The EU’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said that Katz’s intervention was “irrelevant”, adding that “the minister could have used his time better to worry about the situation in his country, or the high death toll in Gaza”. As a result of these statements, the EU has urged member states to impose “consequences” on Israel if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to oppose Palestinian statehood. On 26 January, the UN’s highest court the International Court of Justice (ICJ), issued a Provisional Order which allows the case against Israel to go ahead. The case brought by South Africa argues that Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip constitute genocide. In this preliminary ruling, the ICJ finds that it has jurisdiction to hear the case; a final judgment on the charges is expected to take some years. South Africa requested an immediate ceasefire which the ICJ has not agreed to. However, among other measures, the ICJ orders Israel to take “all measures within its power” to prevent acts of genocide and to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches the Strip.’

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