Since the beginning of February, the EU’s revamped strategy to reduce the number of migrants arriving on European shores has suscitated fervent reactions from south to north of the Mediterranean. On February 3, European Council members met in La Valetta, Malta, where they signed a declaration committing to « step up our work with Libya as the main country of departure as well as with its North African and sub-Saharan neighbors. » Among the tactics proposed, plans to « ensure adequate reception capacities and conditions in Libya for migrants » and « step up assisted voluntary return activities » have faced vehement opposition at the prospect of sending migrants and refugees intercepted at sea into Libya’s detention centers, which to date hold a frightening record of human rights violations.

On the heels of the summit, the Tunisian government has, more or less, followed the lead of its European partners, having been promised sizeable economic packages in exchange for cooperation in curbing the human flow across the Mediterranean. On February 8 and 9, President Essebsi and Foreign Affairs Minister Khemais Jhenaoui were in Rome to sign a Joint Declaration and series of new agreements with Foreign Affairs Minister Angelino Alfano. Sealing discussions with a generous aid package, an extra 165.5€ million (in addition to 200€ million already allocated) for Tunisia’s 2017-2020 Development Plan, Italy left no doubt as to its objectives : « The interventions of the Italian Development Cooperation seek to eradicate the profound causes of irregular migration and also establish new forms of cooperation with the relevant authorities of both countries for the management of immigration and the relevant social, economic and legal aspects. » While Italian and Tunisian officials alike maintain that no formal migration agreement has yet been concluded with Tunisia, recent negotations prioritize maritime border control and the « fight against terrorism, the illegal trafficking of human beings and the issue of Libya. »

A slightly cooler diplomatic exchange took place several days later when Prime Minister Youssef Chahed traveled to Berlin to meet with German chancellor Angela Merkel. In days prior, Chahed had spelled out his opposition to the prospect of setting up a refugee camp in Tunisia. The contentious topic was apparently not broached during his two-day visit to Berlin, where he remained lukewarm with Merkel who has requested that the Tunisian goverment cooperate to speed up the deportation of some 1500 Tunisians who have been refused asylum in Germany. Anis Amri, the man responsible for the December 2016 attack on the Berlin Christmas market, had remained in the country although his request for asylum had been rejected in June the same year. « Tunisian authorities made no error, » Chahed had commented in reference to the handling of Amri’s case, and called for German authorities to provide the documentation necessary to confirm the Tunisian nationality of the individuals in question.

On February 16, an article in the Italian journal Corriere della Sera announced Tunisia’s plans to « receive 200 migrants per month from Libya. »* According to Federico Fubini, special envoy to Brussels, three European officials confirmed that consensus had been reached concerning the main points of an agreement in which Tunisia would accept refugees intercepted in international waters, in exchange for economic and surveillance assistance from Italy. Several days later, Foreign Minister Alfano categorically denied the announcement, indicating that the specific terms of negotiations remain indefinite. On February 17, Tunisia’s ambassador to Italy, Moez Sinaoui, denounced the information as « unfounded » and added that the only agreement between the two countries concerning migration dates back to 5 April 2011. Contacted by Nawaat, Sinaoui clarified that the agreement, signed by Tunisian and Italian Ministers of the Interior, addresses clandestine immigration, whereas recent dicussions are focused on regular migration : « In terms of potential new agreements, for now we can only talk about a common will to relaunch negotations for a new agreement for the « concerted management of regular migration and inclusive development », he told Nawaat. Asked whether or not a refugee camp might figure into future discussions, Sinaoui was clear : « There was never any question of considering or establishing negotiations for the creation of a migrant and refugee camp in Tunisia. The prospect and very principle of a camp in Tunisia were rejected with firmness and determination during the Prime Minister’s last visit to Berlin, and on numerous occasions by the President and Minister of Foreign Affairs. »

While most criticism has focused on Europe’s strategy in Libya, where plans to capture and detain migrants commenced with the training of 89 Libyan Coast Guard cadets, many remain worried that similar plans are in store for Tunisia. This concern was voiced in « Asylum down the drain, » a Joint Statement signed by 32 Tunisian civil society and international organizations. On February 21, the Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), Euromed Rights, Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT) and others denounced the « intolerable pressure » imposed by Germany and Italy on Tunisia to receive migrants intercepted at sea as a « blatant breach of the EU’s as well as Italy’s legal obligations. » Furthermore, the signees argue, the absence of a legal framework to protect the rights of refugees indicates that « the situation in Tunisia does not meet the critieria provided for in European law to deem a country of origin or of transit ‘safe’. » In spite of having signed the 1951 Refugee Convention, Tunisia relies on the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to handle the cases of asylum seekers. Since the UNHCR closed camp Choucha in 2013, Tunisia remains without any safeguards, legal or otherwise, for migrants and refugees in the country.


*Patrizia Mancini helped with an English translation of the 16 February 2017 Corriere della Sera article “Tunisi accoglierà 200 migranti al mese partiti dalla Libia.”