On Monday, June 18, President Saied received the French and German Ministers of the Interior Gerarld Darmanin and Nancy Faezer. At the top of their agenda: migration issues. One week earlier, on June 11, a high-level European delegation visited Tunis. The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was accompanied by Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and President of the Italian Council Giorgia Meloni. Meloni had been in Tunis just five days before to  meet with Kais Saied and Najla Bouden. The outcome of this rendez-vous: European officials announced a « comprehensive package » of measures in support of Tunisia. This includes « macro-financial assistance » in the form of a 900 million euro loan, on the condition that Tunisia signs an agreement with the IMF. The package also proposes 150 million euros as immediate « budget support ». Other aspects touched on are trade agreements, renewable energy, high-speed internet and student exchanges. All of these measures depend on the drafting of a joint memorandum by Tunisia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and the European Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement. The text is to be submitted before the end of June.

According to the newspaper Le Monde, nearly all of the promised sums have already been provisioned. This « remarketing » is a poor disguise for the main issue as far as Europe is concerned: fighting illegal immigration. In the first four months of 2023, departures from the Tunisian coast for Northern Mediterranean countries increased by 292%. As noted in a preceding article, migration issues explain the support of Italy and France for the Saied regime.

Von der Leyen announced, among other things, that 100 million euros will be provided for « border management, but also search and rescue, anti-smuggling and return », all « rooted in the respect of human rights ».

Already, under Ben Ali…

Controversial « return migration » policy in no way constitutes a new approach to international cooperation on migration issues. Several agreements signed with Europe during the Ben Ali era already evoked this policy. Italy, which shares maritime borders with Tunisia, was the first country to sign migration agreements with Tunisia. In 1998, the first of these was signed to facilitate the readmission of illegal migrants in exchange for a quota of professional visas and the banning of collective expulsions. In 2003 and 2009, the Ben Ali regime ratified two other bilateral accords which elaborated logistical aspects of the initial agreement. In 2003, this entailed strengthening police cooperation, while in 2009, measures were taken to facilitate the issuing of consular passes, an essential prerequisite for expulsion.

In April 2011, faced with the significant increase in illegal immigrants arriving to Italy after the fall of Ben Ali, Rome decided to negotiate a new agreement with the government of Beji Caid Essebsi. A temporary residence permit was granted to immigrants who had arrived before the conclusion of the agreement, enabling them to move throughout the Schengen area. In exchange, Tunis was to repatriate all new illegal immigrants. « From then on, the two sides fixed weekly quotas of expelled migrants », recalls Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesman of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES). « This quota was initially set at 40, and increased to 80 in 2018, only to double again in 2020 after the first unconfinement ». Ben Amor says that in spite of the Italian and Tunisian governments’ efforts to remain opaque, NGOs have a fairly global vision of repatriation operations, thanks largely to the National Guarantor for the Rights of Persons Detained or Deprived of Liberty (Garante Nazionale dei diritti delle persone private della libertà personale). This government-run organization—independent from the executive—regularly publishes statistics on the expulsions carried out by Italian authorities.

French opacity

Germany also signed a repatriation agreement with Tunisia. « While federal authorities do not communicate information regarding expulsions, German NGOs make a tremendous effort to be transparent, especially since 2015 [with the massive influx of Syrians] » explains Ben Amor, pointing out that « Total opacity is demonstrated by French authorities ».

It was in 2008 when Paris, home to the largest Tunisian diaspora community, signed a concerted migration management agreement. Keystone of Nicolas Sarkozy’s « chosen immigration » policy, the accord granted Tunisians work authorizations in strained job sectors (computer science, construction, engineering, etc.) in exchange for the facilitation of repatriation operations for illegal immigrants. Although the text specifies that readmissions must be personal and not collective, Ben Amor notes that « things changed after the Nice attack in 2018. Ever since then, expulsions have been carried out by charters, but we have no way of knowing their number ». In 2021, the French government decided to drastically reduce the number of visas granted to Maghreb nationals (from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia). Paris’ objective was to push these southern Mediterranean countries to issue more passes. Already less affected than its neighbors (visas issued to Tunisians were reduced by 30%, as opposed to 50% for Algerians and Moroccans), Tunisia was the first to return to normal. In a joint statement signed by Interior Minister Taoufik Charfeddine and his French counterpart Gérald Darmanin announcing the end of the « visa crisis », it is written that « The ministers have reviewed cooperation on migration and mobility issues and welcome the positive dynamic underway ». Migration issues also explain Emmanuel Macron’s support for the Kais Saied regime.

In March 2023, the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for the degrading treatment of four Tunisian migrants in administrative retention centers on the island of Lampedusa. The Court based its judgement on the articles of the European Convention of Human Rights guaranteeing freedom of circulation and banning massive population displacements. « The FTDES urged Tunisian authorities to use this jurisprudence as grounds for stopping the readmission of illegal migrants, but we were not heard », Ben Amor tells Nawaat.

Europe’s enthusiasm stems not only from the active cooperation of successive governments, but in particular from the agreement of June 8, 2023. Concluded by the 27 European ministers of interior affairs, the text—which must be submitted to the European Parliament before 2024—stipulates that European Union countries sign bilateral accords with « safe » countries. The latter will be expected to repatriate their own nationals, in addition to migrants from third countries who have transited through the « safe country » in question. It is worth recalling that under the Tunisia-Italy agreement of 1998, Tunisia was to receive non-Maghreb nationals who had arrived in Italy via the Tunisian coast. This provision, which essentially concerns sub-Saharan Africans, was never implemented. For partisans of the Great Replacement theory who argue that Europe wishes to implant sub-Saharans in Tunisia in order to alter its « demographic composition », execution of this component of the 1998 agreement could be grist for the mill.

Certain European Union countries are tempted by the British model. Under an agreement adopted by Britain’s conservative government and Rwandan authorities, Rwanda was to receive asylum seekers over a period of five years in exchange for substantial economic aid. The Danish government, whose restrictive migration policies inspire many European leaders of the right and extreme right, has expressed interest in the experiment. For the time being, however, a legal tug-of-war has blocked this migration cooperation with Kigali.

In spite of Europe’s initiative, this sort of scenario does not yet seem possible in Tunisia. In fact, President Saied has reiterated his opposition to Tunisia becoming a destination where migrants can settle. What is more, Ylva Johansson, European Commissioner for Internal Affairs, excluded the possibility of Tunisia’s classification as a « safe country » capable of passing readmission agreements with European countries. Apparently, cooperating with a country on migration issues while tacitly accepting its authoritarianism is not deemed a floatable solution.