“#TeamEurope is back in Tunis,” the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, wrote on Sunday, July 16 at 6:10 pm on X. Moments earlier, following weeks of intensive negotiations in Tunisia, the European Commission had signed a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’. Based on Europe’s ‘strategic and comprehensive partnership’ with Tunisia, the MoU comprised agreements on a variety of issues ranging from migration to economic support. “An investment in our shared prosperity, stability and in future generations,” Von der Leyen said enthusiastically.
“A real milestone and a promising start to a comprehensive agreement,” Dutch (outgoing) Prime Minister Mark Rutte excitedly called the deal on X. The photo accompanying the tweets was striking: Rutte, Von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni reach out to Tunisian President Kais Saied, the flags of the European Union and Tunisia displayed clearly in the background. Saied wraps both hands around the three outstretched right hands of the European leaders. The picture symbolized their new alliance.
Whereas the content of the agreement has been disclosed, its details have yet to be fully worked out. The controversial deal includes 105 million euros in EU support for “border management” and cracking down on human traffickers to stop illegal migration, as well as approximately 600 million euros in budget support and strategic investments in the Tunisian economy, pending a broader agreement that also involves the International Monetary Fund which could provide up to nearly a billion euros in European loans.
Who stands to gain the most from this deal? Obviously, Tunisian President Saied could use the money, especially the portion not contingent upon specific requirements. For European leaders, the central issue is migration, as Rutte indicated in the last sentence of his tweet: “All essential measures for bolstering efforts to stop irregular migration”.
The question that begs answering is this: why was Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte standing next to Saied? The presence of Italian Prime Minister Meloni, with her openly neo-fascist past, is understandable. But Rutte? The prime minister once supported Tunisia’s democratic revolution. Now he comes to strike a deal with a dictator. Only a small proportion of the migrants who arrive by boat from Tunisia in Europe travel on to the Netherlands. Most stay in Italy or head to other EU countries. Rutte nevertheless traveled across Europe and flew twice to Tunisia to make this deal.
Rutte’s migration deals: fulfilling party promises
“Stop irregular migration,” was what Rutte had promised the members of his conservative party VVD more than six months earlier at the party congress in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands. The stakes were high for Rutte that day, November 19, 2022. While addressing his party members in a 20-minute speech, Rutte said he was concerned about the influx of migrants to The Netherlands which was “two to three times higher than normal”. He pointed out that the Turkey deal had decreased the influx, adding: “We fell asleep after that.” So now something had to be done. “That migration flow has to come down substantially,” he insisted. “I see this as a mission,” continued, before concluding, “I will work on this in the coming months. I assure you. This is a personal commitment I’m giving you here.”
These vows were also part of political maneuvering. In exchange for this promise, Rutte would receive support from his own VVD faction in the House of Representatives for a law that could force municipalities to shelter asylum seekers. The Netherlands was struggling with an asylum support crisis; there was a structural shortage of reception places and many municipalities refused to accept new refugee shelters. But the VVD faction in the Parliament opposed this “coercive law”. Rutte then promised, in exchange for their support, to do something about what he called “the excessively high asylum influx”.
After this, Rutte began his tour across Europe to seek support for measures that would allow him to “regain control of migration”.
The Netherlands has been among the initiators of migration deals before. In 2015, the number of asylum seekers in Europe suddenly skyrocketed, mainly due to the many Syrians fleeing war. For many in the Netherlands, images of columns of people walking along rural roads through the Balkans on their way to Europe shifted feelings of compassion to a sense of fear with regard to refugees. In 2016, the European Union—led by the Netherlands which was holding the rotating EU presidency at the time—struck a deal with Turkish president Tayyip Erdoğan. In exchange for 6 billion euros, it was agreed that Turkey would take in the Syrian refugees. Since then, the number of people traveling illegally to Greece has dropped. However, migration experts doubt that this was a direct result of the deal, hypothesizing that the number of Syrian refugees would have dropped regardless.
Italy and the Netherlands rekindle the flame over shared migration interests
Seven years later, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was again looking for a migration deal to help him out. In early March 2023, Rutte was the first European head of government to pay an official visit to right-wing conservative Italian Prime Minister Georgia Meloni in Rome. Meloni saw “mass immigration,” Islam and the “LGBTQ+ lobby” as threats to Italian identity and Christian culture, and she wanted drastic measures to reduce the number of migrants and refugees arriving in Italy.
Rutte and Meloni had spoken at length in the corridors of Brussels a month earlier. During a European Union summit, Rutte took Meloni aside. He knew that Meloni felt the EU needed to take more responsibility regarding migration, and they agreed on this topic. “I sat with Meloni for a long time,” Rutte told the Dutch newspaper Trouw afterwards. He called the meeting a breakthrough; the distrust that had settled in between the two countries since the euro crisis was dissolved. Since then, Rutte and Meloni have been a team. “We are a twin-engine vehicle, trying to drive a process forward,” Rutte said at the press conference a month later in Rome, Trouw noted. They agreed to fully commit to deals on stopping illegal migration to Europe. And, as Rutte added, they were willing to travel together to African countries to make these migration deals.
Tunisia was at the top of their list. From the Tunisian coastal town of Sfax, more and more people were leaving on boats for Italy. This had to stop, they thought. The two heads of government soon also found European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on their side. The trio, #TeamEurope, as they called themselves, headed to Tunisia in June for initial talks with President Saied.
EU migration deals: border protection at all costs
The European Commission has long seen migration deals with countries surrounding the EU as one way to curb illegal migration. After the Turkey deal, another agreement was struck with Libya in 2017. The Libyan coast guard received money and equipment from the EU to intercept migrants in boats on the Mediterranean before entering Italian waters. After the refugees and migrants were caught, the Libyans took them to migrant detention camps around Tripoli. More than 455 million euros has since been transferred to Libya from the EU Emergency Fund for Africa, which was set up in 2015. However, nothing has come of improving the horrific detention centers, a condition which was included in the 2017 Italy-Libya agreement.
In her book “The Fourth Time, We Drowned“, Irish journalist Sally Haydan showed how such deals can lead to gross human rights violations. Migrants testified that Libyan guards subjected them to systematic extortion, torture, exploitation, starvation, forced labor and rape. Many human traffickers who worked with the EU-funded Libyan coast guard were simultaneously active in the detention camps—a lucrative business, in other words. The European border agency Frontex was also involved in operations to catch boats with migrants, patrolling the Libyan “search and rescue zone” with drones. When the drones detected boats, Frontex would send the coordinates to the Libyan coast guard, which picked up the migrants and brought them back to Libya. Within five years after the deal, 82,000 people had been taken to Libyan detention camps, according to Amnesty International. At least 8,000 died on their way to Europe.
The EU gives free rein to Libya to do what they themselves are not allowed to do: send people back to an unsafe country without giving them a chance to apply for asylum.
While behind the scenes Rutte was busy with #TeamEurope, at home members of his conservative party were grumbling. There was discontent around his apparent lack of progress. “Stand up for your own people, man,” one of the VVD members said with a trembling voice to Rutte during the VVD party congress in June, the Dutch daily NRC noted. Once again, Rutte promised to come up with concrete measures before the summer.
Less than a month later, Mark Rutte, Georgia Meloni and Ursula von der Leyen closed the deal in Tunis and shook hands with Tunisian President Saied. Rutte expressed satisfaction upon returning home, as he was able to show his supporters that he was serious about reducing migration and had taken action.
Backlash from European decision-makers
Immediately after the deal was struck, in addition to praise from the right, there was also much criticism in the Netherlands. One of the main critiques was that Rutte had bargained with autocratic President Saied who has committed widespread human rights abuses in his own country, had political opponents imprisoned and incited Tunisians en masse against black migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. “Is it clear who made the agreements and who can be held politically or legally accountable when human rights are compromised?” members of parliament Suzanne Kröger (GreenLeft) and Kata Piri (Social-Democrats) asked the prime minister. Piri had found it “embarrassing” how Prime Minister Rutte stood smiling next to President Kais Saied after the agreement was concluded in Tunis. As Piri underlined, she had heard “not a word about human rights“.
In the European Parliament similar criticism was expressed. “The purpose of the deal is clear: to push a right-wing anti-migration agenda unimpeded and prevent people from traveling to the EU,” MEP Tineke Strik of the Greens wrote in her newsletter. “The deal has only led to more repression, more deaths and even more migration.” Politicians also pointed to the lack of effectiveness. “Two months after the signing ceremony, we still don’t see much implementation,” Jeroen Lenaers of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) told Euronews. “The number of immigrants continues to increase and on the ground in Tunisia we see little development.”
Criticism increased when in mid-September a group of MEPs planning to visit Tunisia was denied entry to the country. The purpose of the visit was to take a close look at the political situation in Tunisia and support dialogue around the memorandum of understanding signed between the EU and the Tunisian president. “This behavior is unprecedented since the democratic revolution in 2011,” German MEP Michael Gahler, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, told The Guardian. “This proves once again that this is an autocratic regime with which you cannot make agreements,” MEP Strik said. “This is simply unacceptable and should be the very last straw. The deal must therefore be taken off the table as soon as possible. The migration deal with Tunisia is inhumane, undemocratic and ineffective.”
Fierce criticism also came from 13 European member states, led by Germany, particularly over the creation of the Tunisia deal. They were outraged that it was not the European Council but the European Commission that had taken the lead in the talks with the Tunisian government, Dutch daily NRC reported from a leaked diplomatic note from a German official working at the Permanent Representation in Brussels. A smaller number of member states appeared dissatisfied with the lack of guarantees on the rule of law and human rights.
Nevertheless, the dealmakers moved forward with their endeavor. “EU set to ‘swiftly’ disburse 127m euros as part of deal against irregular migration, despite criticism from EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly and MEPs over authoritarianism and human rights violations,” Statewatch reported on 25 September on X. “This next step to appease dictator Saied without any conditions on fundamental rights, is not taken on behalf of the EU Member States, European Parliament or EU citizens,” reacted MEP Strik on X. “This Alleingang at the cost of our values is, as Borrell said, ‘incomprehensible’.”
Western monopoly over freedom of movement
Again, the question that demands a response is this: why is stopping migrants and refugees, and especially those crossing the Mediterranean in boats who constitute only a small proportion of all illegal entries, considered important enough in the Netherlands that the prime minister is brought to shake hands with a dictator in Tunis? After all, the Netherlands is far from receiving the largest number of asylum seekers among EU countries. Indeed, the latest Eurostat figures (May 2023) show that the per capita number of people applying for their first asylum request in the Netherlands is even below the EU average. Cyprus receives by far the most first asylum applications per capita, followed by Austria, Spain and Luxembourg. And yet the prime ministers of those countries were not standing next to Saied and Meloni in Tunis. Rutte was.
“It has nothing to do with those migrants themselves,” Leo Lucassen, professor of labor and migration history at Leiden University and director of the International Institute of Social History (IISH), says during an interview by telephone. “Only a very small proportion of those migrants from Tunisia end up in the Netherlands. Most stay to work in Italy, in agriculture in the south. Southern Italy floats on illegal labor. People know they can make money there; they hear it through their networks. People who make it across alive always find work.”
The VVD likes to present itself as the border guard of the Netherlands. The party has been fully committed to the issue of migration, especially refugees. In reality, asylum seekers make up only about 10 percent of the total number of migrants. Most migrants coming to the Netherlands are labor migrants. The continuing demand for labor in Western countries is the main root cause of large-scale migration, argues Hein de Haas, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and Director of the International Migration Institute (IMI) at the University of Oxford, in his book “How Migration Really Works”. And according to him, there is no political will to change this in the Netherlands either. “Who else will do the work in the slaughterhouses, horticultural greenhouses, cleaning companies or the catering industry?”, he said in the Dutch daily the Volkskrant. The ‘fight’ against asylum seekers is not a rational decision based on numbers or own interests.
But the underlying question remains: why do we want this ‘control of migration’ so badly? “In the West, we worship the ideal of free movement”, Martijn Stronks, associate professor at the Amsterdam Centre of Migration and Refugee Law of the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam, says during a phone interview. Stronks, who is working on a book about the relation between the tourist and the asylum seeker, calls this modern understanding of the freedom of movement an ideology, “because it contains a system of beliefs and infrastructures that privileges the movement of some over that of others”. “We have built a machinery that enables some – like the tourists – to use the freedom of movement as if it’s entirely unrestrained”, he argues, “whilst this same system of intensive control of movement restricts this very freedom for others.”
According to Stronks, the Dutch conservative VVD represents par excellence the Westerner who wants to enjoy full freedom and do whatever he wants without any worries. It is this free Westerner who benefits from the fact that other people don’t have that same freedom of movement and therefore created this system with passports, databanks, biometrics, visa, and migration deals.
“The crux is that the system that should prevent asylum seekers from entering Europe from Tunis, is exactly the same system that enables Europeans to go on holiday in Tunisia.”
The Rushdie affair and politicization of migration
Migration wasn’t always seen as one of the biggest problems in the Netherlands. From the 1950s through the 1970s, people were generally open and optimistic about immigrants and a multicultural society. “Partly as a result of the racist atrocities during World War II,” migration historian Lucassen explains. “That awareness about the dangers of racism and the open attitude towards migrants still ebbed a bit in the 1980s. But then you see a turnaround.”
In the 1980s, the tensions, which had existed for some time, between native Dutch people and newcomers became more visible. People began to express their dissatisfaction. Also, about the fact that the problems were not being recognized by politicians and government administrators.
A first breaking point was the Rushdie affair. The fatwa issued by Iranian cleric Khomeini against British-American writer Salman Rushdie in 1989 increased the already existing tensions between Muslims and native Dutch. “The fatwa set in motion a change in the way migration was thought about and talked about,” writes Karin Amatmoekrim in the Dutch opinion weekly De Groene Amsterdammer in late September 2023. Suddenly left-wing intellectuals took to the barricades with slogans such as: “With these Muslims we have brought in the Trojan horse”, Lucassen tells.
The then VVD leader Frits Bolkestein picked up on this as a politician. In a 1991 lecture, he cited the Rushdie affair as an example of what he thought was the problem with migrants in a Western society. “The case of Salman Rushdie may be exceptional, but it shows how much we differ from each other.” Dutch Muslims, Bolkestein believed, had to adapt to Dutch norms and values. “A position that was still considered explosive in those years,” Amatmoekrim writes. ‘It was an inevitable breaking point between what the Netherlands thought it was, with what the Netherlands really was.’
Leo Lucassen agrees and says the fixation on migrants started with former VVD leader Bolkestein. “He deliberately put migration as a problem on the political agenda,” he says. In doing so, Bolkestein was inspired by New Right ideas of leading American political scientists such as Samuel Huntington and his Clash of Civilizations. “The result was that the percentage of Dutch people who saw ‘minorities’ as the most important problem rose from 17 to 28 percent within a few weeks,” Lucassen says. “Which again shows that politics can ‘feed’ feelings. Bolkestein, but especially his ‘sorcerer’s apprentice’ and former VVD parliamentarian Geert Wilders, has perfected that art to the finest detail in the first decade of this century,” Lucassen wrote recently in an opinion piece in the Volkskrant.
It was the start of a long period of pessimism regarding migrants and refugees in the Netherlands. The attitude of tolerance slowly gave way to a race among right-wing populist politicians in the Netherlands who exploited migration as a central election theme.
Acts of violence feed anti-Muslim, anti-migrant sentiments
A number of events in the 2000s gave another boost to anti-Muslim sentiment, combined by anti-migration sentiment. First, the Al Qaeda attacks in New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. These were followed by two domestic assassinations that shocked The Netherlands. In 2002, Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, who had spoken out clearly against Muslims, was assassinated. Not by a Muslim, but by a radical left-wing animal activist. Nevertheless, his killing was seen as an attack on those who were critical of Muslims and therefore fed anti-migration positions. Two years later, in 2004, filmmaker and columnist Theo van Gogh was murdered by a Moroccan-Dutch man who had called Van Gogh an “Enemy of Islam”. The murders of two “iconic individuals,” as Lucassen calls them, both of whom held free speech in high regard, have had enormous influence on the debate about migration and refugees.
Politician Geert Wilders left the VVD. In 2006 he entered the House of Representatives with his anti-migration and anti-Islam party PVV. He immediately attracted many votes. Besides the PVV which stayed strong, numerous other new right-populist splinter parties came and went. In the fight for voters on the right, other, more moderate parties adopted parts of the anti-immigration rhetoric of the far right. Many centrist parties are feeling the PVV’s hot breath. Not only the conservative VVD, but also the Christian Democratic CDA, for example, became increasingly alarmist in their views on migrants and refugees. “They think they have to profile themselves on this,” says Lucassen. “It is purely electoral for their own supporters. To show to other political parties that they are doing everything they can to reduce migration.”
That migration is seen as a “big problem” has become almost a generally shared view in a country like the Netherlands after years of anti-migrant rhetoric. It’s not a left-right “thing” either. It is happening in Denmark, where the Social Democratic government is pursuing a very strict asylum policy. In fact, the Turkey deal was concluded under the leadership of Dutch social democrat Diederik Samson. “It is the nationalist left, out of concern for its ‘own’ workers,” Lucassen explains. “The Social Democrats in the Netherlands don’t have migration as a central issue, like the VVD and other parties on the right, but they don’t want to appear too soft either.” As a result, for years that side hasn’t presented a positive narrative either.
A week before he proudly closed the Tunisia deal, Prime Minister Rutte decided to pull the plug on his cabinet. It is noteworthy that it collapsed because his coalition government couldn’t agree on the issue of limiting family reunification of status holders (refugees with a residence permit), which is just a small aspect within the broader asylum issue. It also meant the inglorious end of his political career as the political leader of the liberal party VVD and prime minister. Since then, he has become the outgoing head of government. There will be new elections in November. Dilan Yeşilgöz, his successor as party leader, has again made the “grip on migration” a spearhead of the VVD election program. She is even going a step further towards the radical right. She already announced that she is willing to form a coalition with the PVV – something Rutte always ruled out because Geert Wilders does not recognize the rule of law.
Rutte disappointed with deal—not Tunisia’s human rights abuses
Meanwhile Mark Rutte is disappointed with the effects of the Tunisia deal so far. Since the Tunisia deal was struck, more than 30,000 migrants have arrived on the Italian island of Lampedusa from Tunisia. He “did not expect” that the numbers of people coming to Italy from Tunisia would still be so high, he told Dutch broadcaster NOS late September. At the same time Rutte stressed it is his “absolute conviction” that the agreements are necessary. “We will not get the asylum issue under control if we are not prepared to make agreements with countries like Tunisia.”
While Saied negotiated with Europe, his regime deported 1,200 migrants to the desert, Belgian newspaper De Standaard reported. Hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans were taken in buses to the sandy plains on the borders with Libya and Algeria. During the deportations, dozens died of thirst, including small children. Hundreds of migrants are still missing. De Standaard called it one of the biggest pushbacks since World War II. However, Rutte didn’t speak a word about these brutal human rights violations and crimes.
Mark Rutte wanted to keep his supporters on board, be the border guard of the Netherlands and show decisiveness on the migration dossier. A dossier that has disproportionately determined the Dutch political agenda for decades now. That’s what the Dutch prime minister expressed as he stood smiling and shaking hands in the snapshot with Saied.
Racism and Sub-Saharans in Tunisia: Italian influence or nationalistic lobbying?
Tunisian president's shocking statement on sub-Saharan Africans in the country sparked xenophobic violence, police arrests, and evictions against them. It reflects Tunisia's non-receptive migration policies and a security-focused approach. The wave of repression is linked to EU externalization of migration policies, and it is possible that Italian pressure and lobbying by the Tunisian Nationalist Party played a role. In the aftermath of the statement's release, the Presidency has taken steps to address the criticism that ensued.