As Europe and the US ramp up budgetary support for Tunisia’s role as border guard against irregular migration across the Mediterranean, Western powers may in fact be adding fuel to the fire they wish to douse. Amidst a climate of political instability, economic decline, deep-seated corruption and the xenophobic rhetoric of President Kais Saied, unconditional foreign funding for Tunisian security forces will only serve to perpetuate the government’s improvised and brutal tactics targeting migrants.

A report released by the NGO Refugees International yesterday, November 16, 2023, urges European countries and the United States to reexamine their investment in Tunisia as the region’s border guard. « Abuse, Corruption, and Accountability: Time to Reassess EU and US Migration Cooperation with Tunisia » draws from previous documentation as well as its own interviews carried out with migrants, smugglers, sailors, security officials, international aid personnel and representatives of local and foreign-based NGOs, among others.

Deep-seated realities: Instability, corruption, authoritarianism

The prognosis is a somber one for the structural factors underlying the recent surge in irregular migration across the Mediterranean. Tunisia’s proximity to Europe and migrants’ perception of the North African country as a relatively safer transit option than neighbors Algeria or Libya, in addition to the instability, poverty and violence which have caused so many to flee their Sub-Saharan countries of origin, are « fundamentally fixed » realities, write the authors of the newly released report. Meanwhile, within Tunisia, the oppressive economic landscape (soaring debt, inflation, food supply shortages) and political shift towards authoritarianism (headed by the current President Kais Saied who has undermined the country’s parliament, state institutions and judicial apparatus) have contributed to the security sector’s growing fragmentation and corruptibility.

Through interviews with a broad range of interlocutors, the authors characterize the mutually beneficial relationship maintained between Tunisian security forces (TSF) and the illicit human smuggling networks thriving at the country’s borders. This relationship is explored from initial contact, when individual security agents are recruited by smugglers, to agents’ complicity in smuggling operations and compensation for their cooperation. As iterated by many of those surveyed, collusion between Tunisian security personnel and smuggling networks is so deeply entrenched—particularly in the south—that its imminent undoing or any effective reforms towards this end are highly unlikely. In fact, Kais Saied’s regime of « authoritarian policing » which favors impunity within the security sector has only amplified this phenomenon.

Human trafficking thrives, immigrants blamed and brutalized

In this context of regional instability and internal corruption, human movement across the Mediterranean has intensified, and Tunisia has become the primary country of transit for those wishing to make their way to Europe. As RI reports, between January and September 2023, some 90,601 migrants left Tunisian shores headed for Italy, or four times the number who attempted the journey in 2022. While this flux has placed a great burden on a Tunisia mired in political and economic crisis, it is a boon for human trafficking networks. In the words of one activist interviewed by RI: « Parts of coastal and southern Tunisia have become the Silicon Valley of human smuggling ». In the absence of viable economic alternatives, this booming industry has become « a crucial means of livelihood for many Tunisian families and social networks », especially for those employed in the security sector.

President Kais Saied has not merely failed to address this deeply enmeshed complicity and collusion, but indeed used it as recourse when other tactics employed in the name of migration management have proven ineffective. Characterizing the current administration’s incoherent and brutal migration policies, the report enumerates the « grave and systemic abuses against refugees, asylum seekers and other migrants » which it demonstrates are even graver than initially reported during the forced expulsions which took place in the summer of 2023.

Following the arbitrary and illegal expulsion of thousands of Black African foreigners (regardless of residency status) to desert and border regions of Libya and Algeria in early July, the government frantically backpedaled, relocating hundreds of individuals to locations across the Tunisian south. Recalling this period of chaotic expulsion and return which unfolded between July 2 – 10, 86% of Black African foreigners surveyed affirmed having endured physical violence, with 85% reporting that this violence was perpetrated by Tunisian security forces. By August 10, the government alleged that all those initially expelled had now been returned to the country, while a number of NGOs operating in Sfax where the raid took place observed that many individuals were still journeying back, having received no assistance whatsoever since initial arrests were carried out.

Violations continue without impunity, as the West throws money at TSF

Beyond the president’s racist discourse preceding these events and the human rights violations committed throughout, the report highlights the consistently punitive and conflicting tactics employed by the government in the months that have followed. The authors describe in detail how the current administration has: (1) advertently and repeatedly blocked the provision of emergency aid by NGOs to migrants; (2) internally displaced migrants away from urban centers to rural areas without access to services, then relocated the same individuals to known smuggling points; (3)  deployed central security units to interdict and arrest smugglers at designated smuggling points (September and October); (4) expelled migrants interdicted at sea and subsequently transported them to border regions. As one international agency document from the month of October noted, « During September, 4,300 people were pushed back, including 2,000 in the past week ».

Ostensibly, there has been no internal accountability for the human rights violations committed under the administration of President Saied and by security forces since July 2023. This point is central to RI’s critique of the role played by Western powers in the migration crisis and its management across the Mediterranean, casting doubt as to « Whether any partnership deal, under the current conditions, can reasonably hope to deter migration through Tunisia ». Or, more succinctly: « Future collaboration is likely to simply spur further abuses while yielding negligible impact on migration through the Mediterranean ».

The report calls for a fundamental rewriting of current approaches to migration management, and lays out specific recommendations for shifting the prevailing climate of abuse, corruption, and impunity that perpetuates the brutalization and loss of life of those seeking safety and security outside of their countries of origin. In this context, it urges Tunisia to:

  • put an end to the TSF’s abusive practices, including arbitrary detention and expulsion of migrants to border areas;
  • stamp out racist discourse and behaviors targeting migrants, Black African foreigners as well as Black Tunisians;
  • adopt legislation and/or policy reforms that address refugee status, access to asylum, and guarantee rights and protections;
  • undertake investigations and enforce accountability measures for security personnel complicit in the operations of smuggling networks;
  • expand emergency aid services for migrants.

Similarly, Europe and the United states are called upon to pursue collaborative efforts with Tunisia that are based upon specific safeguards, including:

  •  policy and/or legislative reforms that ensure migrant rights and protections;
  • increased emergency services for migrants;
  • mechanisms to ensure oversight and accountability across the security sector;
  • increased funding for the Tunisian Red Crescent and other international NGOs that offer emergency services to migrants.

Among its recommendations for future migration agreements with Tunisia, RI also urges Western partners to expand safe and legal migration pathways as well as the capacity for rescue operations across the Mediterranean.

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