By legitimising Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed’s increasingly authoritarian grip and bolstering the country’s security apparatus in the name of stopping migration, the EU is not only turning a blind eye to the worsening corruption, collapsing economy, and deteriorating human rights situation in Tunisia – it is actively contributing to the factors pushing more to migrate and risk their lives.
Tunisia was recently offered more than one billion euros ($1.1 billion) by the EU to help stabilise the country’s economy and curb migration across the Mediterranean. For his part, Saïed said that Tunisia does not want to become Europe’s border guard.
But for years already, Tunisia has been receiving millions of euros from the EU to ‘manage migration’ while also not putting in place a clear migration policy or adopting a law on asylum and refugees. As a result, Tunisia does not have a legal framework to govern the presence of people who end up stuck in its territory after being blocked from crossing the Mediterranean.
The tension between those policies is now coming to a head due to underlying anti-Black racism in Tunisian society, more than a decade of economic disappointment following Tunisia’s 2010 revolution, post-pandemic food shortages and inflation made worse by the war in Ukraine, and an increasingly authoritarian and unpredictable president.
The match was lit by the now infamous speech by Saïed on 21 February, when he peddled baseless, racist conspiracy theories about Black African migrants threatening to transform Tunisia into “a purely African country that has no affiliation with Arab and Islamic nations”. In the aftermath of the speech, Black African asylum seekers and migrants have been fired from their jobs, expelled from their homes, and targeted in violent attacks.
It’s little surprise that Tunisia has outstripped Libya – albeit slightly – as the main departure location in North Africa for asylum seekers and migrants trying to reach Europe. At the same time, morgues in the south of the country have been overwhelmed as the bodies of hundreds of people who have drowned in shipwrecks attempting the journey wash ashore.
This situation is horrible and tragic, but it is also the result of continuous pressure from the EU to contain asylum seekers and migrants in Tunisia, and decisions by Tunisian political leaders to leave Black Africans in a perpetual state of informality, stranded on the fringes of society.
Tunisia’s growing role
Tunisia's role in EU externalisation is often overshadowed by neighbouring Libya. For years, the public has heard about the horrific conditions asylum seekers and migrants are subjected to in Libya, and the EU’s role in perpetuating the cycle of interception, detention, and abuse.
In comparison, the situation in Tunisia has received less attention. However, the two countries are historically linked, and asylum seekers and migrants escaping conflict and abuse in Libya have often crossed the border into Tunisia. Others have been ‘rescued’ or ‘intercepted’ at sea by the Tunisian Coast Guard and brought to Tunisia’s shores.
“Research clearly shows that increased border enforcement does not stop migration. Instead, it forces asylum seekers and migrants to take longer and more dangerous routes.”
Given its location on the Mediterranean Sea, Tunisia has faced pressure from the EU since the 1990s to ‘manage migration’, which has accelerated over the past decade. Millions of euros have flowed from EU institutions and member states to train, equip, and advise the Tunisian security forces and militarise Tunisia’s borders. This includes funding for radar systems, coast guard boats, electronic surveillance equipment, and centres to train Tunisian security forces in ‘border management’.
The recent one-billion-euro deal will only further bolster this security apparatus, and accelerate concerns about Tunisia turning into a police state once again.
Furthermore, the approach is doomed to fail. Research clearly shows that increased border enforcement does not stop migration. Instead, it forces asylum seekers and migrants to take longer and more dangerous routes, creating repeat business for smugglers and resulting in higher-risk journeys and more preventable deaths.
Over the years, the EU-backed Tunisian Coast Guard has intercepted or rescued tens of thousands of EU-bound asylum and migrants at sea, including many who departed from Libya. Once brought ashore, Tunisia's absence of an official migration policy and asylum law means that these people often have no way to seek protection or obtain legal status. To the extent that it exists, their access to housing, work, healthcare, education, and protection from abuse is ad hoc and precarious.
Parts of southern Tunisia close to the border with Libya – such as the cities of Medenine and Zarzis – have effectively become dumping grounds for asylum seekers and migrants intercepted or rescued by the coast guard or who crossed into Tunisia from Libya seeking safety.
There are two shelters in Medenine – one run by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, and the other run by the UN’s migration agency, IOM. These facilities are supposed to provide short-term accommodation, and do not have enough capacity to house the number of people in need.
Reports of overcrowding, lack of access to basic hygiene, outbreaks of scabies, respiratory problems due to mould, and water dripping from the ceiling in shelters are common. I’ve witnessed these conditions first-hand during research visits, and that was before UNHCR cut in funding in 2021. Reports of physical and sexual violence and suicide attempts are also common.
Tunisia’s government has given UNHCR a mandate to determine if people qualify as refugees under international law. But even if they do, that does not give them stable legal status in the country. Even so, several women I have met tried to drink bleach or cut themselves after their asylum cases were rejected by UNHCR.
Asylum seekers and migrants I’ve known for years refer to their existence in the country as a “hidden hell”. These conditions have now been exacerbated by the political turmoil and worsening socio-economic challenges Tunisia is facing.
Meanwhile, there is no political will in Tunisia to implement laws to protect asylum seekers and migrants or give them legal standing in the country. The EU is also showing itself to be ever-more desperate to strike a senseless deal with Tunisia to reduce migration, with very little regard for human life: an approach that will undoubtedly backfire.
For asylum seekers and migrants who cannot – or will not – return to their home countries, there are only two options: remain in Tunisia’s “hidden hell”, or risk their lives to try to find a way out.