Tunisia rejects EU funding – partly supplied already – putting into question the recent MoU signed in July amid new reports of severe abuse and expulsions from the north-African state. NGO footage reveals new attacks on people in distress in the Mediterranean by the so-called Libyan Coast Guard.

In early October, Tunisian President Kais Saied rejected 127 million Euros the European Commission recently agreed to disburse in the context of the controversial deal signed between Tunisia and the bloc in July. “Tunisia rejects what the EU announced, not because of the small amount … but because the proposal conflicts with the memorandum of understanding signed in July,” Saied said, putting the deal under which a total of 1 billion Euros in aid have been pledged in potential jeopardy. Journalist, Nikolaj Nielsen underlined that “the Commission injected €60m into Tunisia’s treasury (post-Covid recovery) from €127m total upon Tunisia’s request on 31 August. The remaining €67m goes to border/migration – of which €13m already contracted to IOM & €8m UNHCR”. According to Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Oliver Varhelyi: “Tunisia formally requested payment of €60m budget support by the EU on 31 August. On this basis, the EU disbursed the payment on 3 Oct. It concerns budget support from 2021 – not linked to the EU-Tunisia MoU. Tunisia is free to cancel its formal disbursement request & wire back the money to the EU budget. A Commission spokesperson was more diplomatic, stating: “We’ve taken note of the communiqué by the Tunisian presidency. I think you will obviously understand that the EU conducts its relations with partners through direct contacts and that’s exactly what we’re doing”.

However, Saied, leading a regime notorious for human rights abuse including of migrants, and a deeply debt-ridden nation further pointed out that EU “lacks respect” and claimed: “The treasures of the world are not equal to a single grain of our sovereignty in the eyes of our people,” adding: “Tunisia, which accepts cooperation, does not accept anything that resembles charity or handouts”. In an opinion piece published on 30 September, researcher at the Transnational Institute (TNI), Sylvia Kay, puts the deal into question including its efficiency in functioning as deterrence for potential irregular migrants originating in Tunisia. “While it remains to be seen how this memorandum will further take shape, it can be read as a continuation of the EU’s trade policies towards its southern neighbour which have been criticised for systematically disadvantaging Tunisian small and medium enterprises. Against this backdrop, it appears unlikely that the migration deal will improve the situation for Tunisians, especially those from the rural areas who are trying to emigrate from the country en masse. In fact, the EU’s past and present trade policies towards Tunisia are much to blame for the misery of small-scale farmers and agricultural workers”. A recent report by Brot für die Welt and misereor pointed out that: “One in ten Tunisians lives abroad, making emigration an important element of national identity and economic prosperity”. Dutch MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld also commented on the “famous blueprint Tunisia deal” for future migration as hailed by Commission President saying the deal turned out to be a “fob” and a “blueprint for not how to” manage future migration. The deal props up a dictator, increases human sufferings and leads to massive human rights violation, and doesn’t reduce migrant arrivals, ‘t Veld explained.

Meanwhile, reports of severe abuse continue to mount. On 2 October, Open Arms reported the story of a survivor: “After a long journey, Ousman managed to reach Tunisia. There the authorities detained him and abandoned him, along with many others, in the middle of the desert, without water or food. He managed to survive, arrived in Libya and jumped into the sea to escape the hell of torture and abuse that the North African country has become”. On the same day, Refugees in Libya, stated: “Tunisian authorities continue to carry out illegal mass expulsions from Sfax to Libya in collaboration with the Libyan militias. On September 29, 2023, a mass collection of migrants occurred in Sfax involving the illegal mass expulsion of over 400 individuals, 250 Sudanese and around 150 other African nationals, women and children. Some were intercepted by the Tunisian National Guards, while others were forcibly collected from the streets and transferred to Nalut, Libya, using buses. Upon reaching Nalut, they were handed over to Sultan Al-Labiba, a local representative of Libyan authorities. They are currently detained in the prison facility operated by the Stability Support Apparatus (60th Battalion), in Nalut. These illegal and mass expulsions of migrants from Tunisia to Libya, facilitated by Tunisian authorities in collaboration with Libyan militias like the Stability Support Apparatus is an ongoing practice which started since early July and it is a grave violation of human rights”. On the 4 October, the organisation published an update, stating: “The Stability Support Apparatus confirms the transfer from Nalut to Tripoli the 400 people we followed their expulsions to Libya by the Tunisian authorities. This is clear state to state human trafficking by the authorities. We call for the immediate release of these people who are 90% asylum seekers from Sudan”. Additionally, Channel 4 News published the story of a Cameroonian national who was beaten and lost his feet after being deported from Tunisia to Algeria.

The so-called Libyan Coast Guard funded by Italy and the EU is again implicated in attacks on migrants and pullbacks in the Mediterranean. On 29 October, Sea-Watch International reported: “Attempted murder today in the Mediterranean by the so-called Libyan coastguard! We cannot know if and how many people lost their lives. However, the survivors, who made it aboard the Libyan patrol vessel are now illegally forced back to Libya”. ECRE member, Are You Syrious (AYS) described the incident: “A boat carrying 50 people was circled and rammed by the Libyan Coast Guard until the vessel overturned. The events were witnessed and filmed by Sea-Watch’s plane, Seabird. The video clearly shows the violent intent of the intervention and its aftermath as people struggle for their lives”. The incident has also been covered by international media outlets. On 30 September, Alarm Phone reported of 43 people in distress off Libya and on 5 October the NGO hotline wrote: “While we still require further confirmation, we believe that the 43 people were returned to Libya”. According to the United Nations Security Council’s expert team, notorious human trafficker, Abdel-Rahman Milad Bidja has used forged travel documents in an attempt to circumvent the travel ban imposed against him. Since his release from pretrial detention on 11 April, 2021, Bidja has been receiving a military salary, which constitutes a violation for UN resolutions.

As of 30 September, a total of 11,736 people have been intercepted and returned to Libya in 2023.

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