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EU deal will only worsen racist abuse of migrants in Tunisia

‘It is fully in line with the development agenda Europe has been exporting to former colonies for decades.’

Asylum seekers and migrants on board a Tunisian National Guard boat after being intercepted at sea while trying to reach Europe in August. Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency
Asylum seekers and migrants on board a Tunisian National Guard boat after being intercepted at sea while trying to reach Europe in August.

The EU’s willingness to ignore the consequences of externalising its migration management at all costs is turning the bloc’s periphery into a human rights graveyard. Nowhere is this more evident at the moment than in Tunisia.

The one-billion-euro strategic partnership aimed at reducing migration that the EU agreed with Tunisia in July pays lip service to the rights of asylum seekers and refugees. But the signing of the deal not only ignores human rights concerns stemming from the recent violent and deadly treatment of Black Africans in the country, it also puts forward a framework that is likely to exacerbate violations and abuses and perpetuate impunity.

Sadly, this is by no means novel. Using middlemen to shield itself from responsibility and liability has become business as usual in the EU’s approach to managing migration. The so-called strategic partnership with Tunisia is just the next episode in a series of human rights failures that show that the EU is unwilling – or unable – to design migration policies that respect its own fundamental principles.

The impact of slavery

There are two main factors behind the plight Black Africans have faced in Tunisia over the course of this year.

Racial hostility and discrimination is widespread across the country, with roots that go back to the unaddressed history and legacy of slavery in Tunisian society. The capital, Tunis, hosted a bustling slave market in the heart of the old city until Tunisia became the first Arab country to outlaw slavery in 1846 – two years before France, and 19 years before the United States. Today, between 10% and 15% of Tunisians are Black, with many tracing their families’ presence in the country back to slavery.

A map of Tunisia

Over the 177 years since it was outlawed, however, there has been little-to-no political will or commitment to address the longstanding impacts of centuries of slavery on the lives of Black Tunisians or on societal attitudes towards Black people.

The prevalence of anti-Black racism in Tunisian society has recently been instrumentalised and effectively deployed to generate economic resentment toward Black asylum seekers and migrants as a way to distract attention from the economic and political misconduct of Tunisia’s current leadership.

Racist and xenophobic narratives promoted by nationalists were becoming increasingly prevalent in public discussion even before President Kais Saied’s now-infamous speech in February this year, baselessly promoting conspiracy theories about Black Africans engaging in a “criminal plan” to alter the country’s identity.

Without this recent instrumentalisation of deeply rooted racism, the EU’s new migration deal would not have found nurturing ground in Tunisian society. Now, the EU has leveraged this situation to advance its own agenda of externalising migration management.

A deal to keep Black Africans out

The EU-Tunisia deal is fully in line with the development agenda Europe has been exporting to former colonies for decades. It offers 900 million euros in loans and budget support aimed at helping Tunisia’s sputtering economy. Historically, the conditionality connected to this type of support has increased income inequality, limited opportunities for educated youth, and eroded social safety nets for workers.

The real impetus for the deal, however, is articulated in the fifth pillar of the memorandum of understanding signed between the EU and Tunisia in July, titled “Migration and mobility”. The aim of the deal is to incentivise Tunisia to better control its borders in order to keep Black African asylum seekers and migrants out of the country.

To this end, the EU is providing an additional 100 million euros for “the provision of equipment, training and technical support necessary to further improve the management of Tunisia's borders”. Tunisia also reiterated its position “that it is not a country of settlement for irregular migrants”.

The memorandum of understanding was drafted and signed less than two weeks after groups of Tunisian civilians attacked Black African asylum seekers and migrants in the coastal city of Sfax, and as Tunisian security forces rounded up and expelled hundreds, leaving them stranded in no man’s land in the country’s desert border regions with Libya and Algeria.

At least 27 bodies of people who are believed to have died after being expelled have since been found along Tunisia’s border with Libya.

Dismissal of deadly consequences

While all this was taking place in the south of the country, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, along with the Italian and the Dutch prime ministers, shook hands with President Saied while signing the memorandum of understanding on 16 July. Von der Leyen has said the EU-Tunisia deal is a model for agreements with other countries.

On 27 July, the UN’s migration and refugee agencies, IOM and UNHCR, issued a joint statement decrying the "unfolding tragedy" of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Tunisia's border regions and calling for steps to be taken to help those who were stranded.

In a sign of the impunity emboldened by Tunisia’s migration cooperation with the EU, the country’s interior minister dismissed these urgent calls for action, stating that the UN's concerns were inaccurate and akin to "untruths". The foreign ministry also called reports about the treatment of Black African asylum seekers and migrants “disinformation”.

This dismissal of international concern, coupled with the growing death toll, are a stark reminder of the cruel indifference that characterises the EU and Tunisia's current approach to migration. Sadly, they are only one example and a forewarning of more to come.

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