Last year, Tunisia overtook Libya as the primary point of departure for refugees seeking entry into Europe. The EU has responded to this by paying the North African nation billions to violently police migrants.

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean Sea after being intercepted by the Tunisian Maritime National Guard and brought back to the shore of the Tunisian city of Sfax, June 23, 2023. (Khaled Nasraoui / picture alliance via Getty Images)

The European Union has struck a deal with the Tunisian government to quell migration coming to European shores. What has been termed a “strategic partnership” after weeks of talks between the two governments has resulted in $1.12 billion to Tunisia to rescue its fledgling economy and bail out debts to directly deal with a growing migrant crisis.

While the funds are contingent on specific economic reforms, human rights groups have sounded the alarm that the European taxpayer money is funding the collective expulsions of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), most of the migrants are Ivorian, Cameroonian, Malian, Guinean, Chadian, Sudanese, and Senegalese. Between July 2 and 6, HRW estimate that Tunisian security forces expelled between five hundred and seven hundred people, including children and pregnant women.

Tunisia’s geography, situated at the northernmost point of Africa, makes it a prime point of departure for migrants willing to risk the dangerous oversea journey to nearby Sicily. Migrants from neighboring African nations often hand out their entire life savings to people smugglers or human traffickers.

Their numbers are increasing. In the first quarter of 2023 alone, the Tunisian government stopped seventeen thousand migrants from departing in boats, as floating bodies — which increased by more than three thousand from the previous year — continued to wash ashore daily in the port city of Sfax. So far this year, over seventy-five thousand migrants have reached Italy, more than double the numbers from 2022. Tunisia has overtaken Libya as the primary hub for departure.

This development has direct political consequences. Throughout Europe, single-issue parties around immigration reduction are on the rise, and other nationalist movements are using the crisis to make the case for closed borders. While immigration as a concern has always fueled fringe-right elements in European politics, this particular crisis alone has led to the collapse of the Dutch government and the rise of the Alternative for Germany.

And while international headlines concentrate on the European political fallout or the structure of the $1.12 billion heading to Tunis, fewer provide context on how the government in Tunisia has managed the crisis so far. The developments provide a stark reminder that politicians continue to see the plight of migrants from Africa to Europe as a primarily domestic problem, not an issue stemming from global inequality and war.

The EU has long pressured Tunisia to do something about the migrant issue. During a public meeting in Tunis with German interior minister Nancy Faeser and her French counterpart Gérald Darmanin, Tunisian president Kais Saied said, “Tunisia will never accept to be the guardian of any other country’s borders and will not accept the settlement of migrants on its soil.”

This stated policy has seen Tunisian authorities remove hundreds of migrants to a desolate area along the border with Libya, following a wave of xenophobia and violent attacks against foreigners, some not even migrants, following the president’s statement.

Even the establishment press has admitted that Saied is using this migration issue as “a scapegoat to distract attention from his creeping authoritarianism and the country’s economic problems.”

“Not only is it unconscionable to abuse people and abandon them in the desert, but collective expulsions violate international law,” said Lauren Seibert, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at HRW. Since de facto policies around forced expulsion have been underway, the International Organization for Migration in Libya said that it has been able to provide some emergency medical assistance to people.

The Red Crescent has since rescued hundreds of migrants from the desert, two hundred of whom reported wanting to return to their origin countries. The rest have asked to be taken to Europe.

Interviews conducted by HRW found that migrants had been forcibly arrested “by police, national guard, or military in and near Sfax, a port city southeast of the capital, Tunis.” They were then transported “300 kilometers to Ben Guerdane, then to the Libya border, where they were effectively trapped in what they described as a buffer zone from which they could neither enter Libya nor return to Tunisia.”

Amnesty International has also come out against the billion-dollar payoff from the EU to Tunisia, stating that the EU is now “complicit” in abuses against asylum seekers, refugees, and migrants. As noted in a statement from Eve Geddie, advocacy director at Amnesty’s European Institutions Office:

This ill-judged agreement, signed despite mounting evidence of serious human rights abuses by [Tunisian] authorities, will result in a dangerous expansion of already failed migration policies and signals EU acceptance of increasingly repressive behaviour by Tunisia’s president and government.

Coming against a backdrop of escalating violence and abuses against sub-Saharan African migrants by Tunisian authorities, the decision shows no lessons have been learned from previous similar agreements. This makes the European Union complicit in the suffering that will inevitably result.

Camille Le Coz, associate director of the Brussels-based Migration Policy Institute, told the New York Times, “The deal shows that once again, Europe is ready to turn a blind eye to its values to provide a short-term fix to a migration problem.”

“What’s missing is a reference to protection concerns and the human rights abuses against migrants.”

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