Europe’s Migration Deal With Tunisia Is a Humanitarian Disaster

In July, the European Union announced a deal with Tunisia to police migration. The deal allowed the EU to outsource the dirty work of repressing migrants — but it’s done nothing to hide the mounting numbers of desperate people dying in the Mediterranean.

Migrants arrive at Lampedusa on September 16, 2023 in Italy. (Valeria Ferraro / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Footage of European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen with Giorgia Meloni on the island of Lampedusa last weekend symbolized European authorities’ common determination to control migration — but it also wasn’t new. It echoed the pair’s visit to Tunisia in June 2023 when, together with Dutch premier Mark Rutte, they met the North African state’s president Kais Saied and presented an EU-Tunisia Memorandum of Understanding. The EU offered Tunisia an immediate financial support package of about $120 million in what it calls “migration funding,” the details of which remain opaque.

The funds have not yet been disbursed, despite ongoing Italian pressure to do so. Yet, it is clear that the deal has run into a number of problems — practical as well as humanitarian. One of the most obvious consequences of the agreement is that it provides political legitimization to Saied, who has been ruling Tunisia in an increasingly authoritarian fashion since his power grab in July 2021. In the two years since the coup, he has liquidated the independence of the judiciary, organized sham parliamentary elections, and imprisoned Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, the largest party in parliament before Saied forced its closure in 2021.

In her visit to Tunis, von der Leyen stated that one of the objectives of the EU-Tunisia agreement was to provide funds to Tunisia “to support a holistic migration policy rooted in the respect of human rights.” However, it is complicated to see how migrants and asylum seekers can feel safe in Tunisia. In February 2023, Saied portrayed black Africans in Tunisia as “hordes” bringing “violence and crime” to the country. The Tunisian president took a page from white supremacist hate speech, adopting the “great replacement” conspiracy theory to blame sub-Saharan African countries for trying to change Tunisia’s demographic composition.

Saied’s racist remarks greatly contributed to an increase of racism in Tunisia, with many sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia losing their jobs or being attacked by mobs. Furthermore, less than a month after the EU-Tunisia deal, five hundred migrants and asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa were pushed by the Tunisian National Guard into a dangerous no-man’s-land on the Libyan border and denied access to basic necessities. At least twenty-seven people were reported dead after being abandoned in the scorching heat of the Libyan desert. Faced with an increasingly racist environment, and special vulnerability to Tunisia’s economic crisis, more migrants and asylum seekers are deciding to attempt the difficult crossing of the Mediterranean.

Around 126,000 migrants and asylum seekers have reached Italy’s shores this year, doubling the numbers from 2022. Many of them first arrive at the island of Lampedusa, where they are hosted in overcrowded facilities. And even so, those who land in Lampedusa are comparatively fortunate. According to the Missing Migrants Project by the International Organization for Migration, only in the Central Mediterranean, at least 2,020 people died in 2023, in what is likely a severe undercount due to the difficulties in collecting accurate data.

European Hypocrisy

Last week saw the EU-Tunisia agreement under strain. The Tunisian government told a delegation of members of the European Parliament that they would not “be authorized to enter the national territory.” The delegation, due to visit the country between September 14 and 16, was formed by some parliamentarians critical of the agreement but headed by a party colleague of von der Leyen.

The group denounced the Tunisian authorities’ conduct as “unprecedented since the democratic revolution in 2011.” Whether consciously or not, they pointed to the core of the issue. While the EU has been incredibly mild in its condemnation of Saied’s autocratic moves, it should be recognized that Tunisia is no longer a democracy. Tellingly enough, the denial of access to EU parliamentarians was followed by Saied’s announcement that he would not allow foreign election monitors in the 2024 presidential elections.

The decision to forbid entry to the EU parliamentarians came in the wake of the parliamentary debate that took place in Strasbourg, France, on September 12, where several MEPs expressed strong criticism about the agreement. Tineke Strik, a Dutch representative, denounced von der Leyen’s hypocrisy: while she “fiercely defends democracy against autocracy . . . she proudly presents dirty deals with a ruthless dictator, Saied.” Indeed, in her State of the Union address the following day, von der Leyen defended the EU’s supposed success in striking a new balance “between protecting borders and protecting people” and mentioned the EU-Tunisia deal as an example.

Such a balance, however, does not exist. At its core, the EU-Tunisia deal consists of the EU paying its southern neighbor to prevent migrants and asylum seekers from crossing the Mediterranean. As for protecting people, there is not even a working mechanism in place in Tunisia to determine who qualifies as a refugee under international law. As researcher Ahlam Chemlali explains, Tunisia is a signatory to the Geneva Convention but has “no national framework or policy on migration or asylum.”

When seen in the light of the EU-Tunisia migration deal, von der Leyen’s statement in the State of the Union address that she is “proud to announce that the Commission will propose to extend our temporary protection to Ukrainians in the EU” rings hypocritical. The same applies to her previous words on how “Putin’s authoritarian Russia launched a war of aggression to . . . destroy Ukraine as an independent, free, and democratic country.” If refugee rights and democracy are universal principles, why are they more important when it comes to Ukraine than in Tunisia?

The contradiction is perfectly expressed in a recent interview with Manfred Weber, the president of the conservative European People’s Party Group, which holds the most seats in the European Parliament. After returning from a recent trip to Tunisia in late August where he met President Saied, Weber stated that Europe needs to defend its borders “to make sure that our European citizens know that the states control who is arriving, and not the smugglers.” Otherwise, he added, “we cannot secure the support of our citizens for legal migration, such as the Ukrainians who are currently coming to Europe.”

Double Outsourcing

In recent times, the EU has been following a policy that could be described as “double outsourcing.” It has sought to outsource migration management to Tunisia while diplomatic contacts with Saied and other North African leaders are increasingly channeled through Italy’s far-right government. Meloni prepared the ground for the EU-Tunisia deal by visiting Tunis before the EU delegation headed by von der Leyen. She had also previously traveled to Libya to discuss migration issues.

In the aftermath of the EU-Tunisia agreement, the Italian premier organized a migration conference in Rome attended by von der Leyen, Saied, and multiple representatives of international organizations and European, African, and Middle Eastern governments. After the conference, it was announced that Tunisia would host “a next high-level event” in the framework of a so-called “Rome Process” to deal with migration.

The dangers of allowing Meloni to lead Europe’s diplomatic exchanges are obvious to anyone who does not choose to purposely ignore them. A self-declared admirer of Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, Meloni shares Saied’s belief in the “great replacement” conspiracy theory. In 2019, she said that the Italian government of the time sought to “destroy our European and Christian identity with uncontrolled mass migration.”

Much mainstream media is progressively depicting Meloni and her coalition government as right-wing instead of far-right, but this is the result of the normalization of their discourse, not of a tangible change. Meloni’s image has also improved in Western capitals as a result of her support for the EU policy regarding the Ukraine war, in contrast to the often-dissenting voice of fellow radical right leader, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Meloni’s position on Ukraine may have earned her “mainstream” credentials, yet her ministers’ continued use of “great replacement” theory and claims of threatened civilizational destruction belie the image of moderation.

Brutal Business

In the context of the recent increase in the arrivals of migrants and asylum seekers to Lampedusa, Meloni has unearthed her previous proposal, as unfeasible as inhuman, of imposing a naval blockade on North Africa. In her visit to Lampedusa, von der Leyen mentioned the EU is open to “explore options to expand naval missions in the Mediterranean,” which could be seen as a veiled reference to Meloni’s proposal. Other than that, the president of the European Commission focused, as herself and many other European leaders have done time and again, on the role of smugglers. Indeed, as von der Leyen said, migrant smuggling is a “brutal business.”

But putting the attention on the smugglers alone is deeply cynical. To begin with, Italy often arrests migrants and asylum seekers on trumped-up smuggling charges — in many cases boat drivers who only took the controls because they were forced to, or as a way of getting their place on board. Moreover, the condemnation of smugglers is normally accompanied by a portrayal of migrants and asylum seekers as being fooled by scheming merchants of death.

Although deceptive practices surely exist, migrants and asylum seekers have little need for such patronizing claims. If smugglers can build a business on the shoulders of human suffering, it is because of profound and far-reaching structures of global inequality and violent conflict that set people on the move. The smuggling itself is only a symptom of a broader problem.

The fact that many migrants and asylum seekers who are forcibly returned to North Africa attempt the crossing multiple times speaks of their unwavering determination despite the risks. Moreover, there is a growing practice known in Tunisia as “comita,” in which Tunisians with maritime skills join efforts to self-organize the crossing of the Mediterranean without resorting to the abusive practices of the smugglers.

For all the efforts to erect a Fortress Europe, the notion that firm borders will stop migrants and asylum seekers from reaching Europe is nothing but an illusion. In its abdication of Europe’s global responsibility, the EU will only push migrants and asylum seekers to take ever more dangerous routes. Fortress Europe is more of an aspiration held by a worryingly growing number of European politicians than a reality. Still, by giving the keys to the fortress to the likes of Meloni, the EU is empowering those who would like to see Europe recede to darker times.