Tunisia underestimates imminent North Africa refugee crisis

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Libyan refugees. Tunisia, [Magharebia/Flickr]

Tunisia has signed agreements with the EU for the return of  illegal Tunisian immigrants and to host asylum seekers from other African countries. But Tunis is now denying those deals, writes Mourad Teyeb.

Mourad Teyeb is a journalist and consultant based in Tunis.

Since 2011, hundreds of thousands of Tunisian and sub-Saharan Africans have used the Tunisian soil and shores to sail to Europe in one of modern history’s most dreadful human tragedies.

The numbers of the so-called “irregular migrants” vary from one month to another according to the political and security situations in Tunisia and Libya.

Now, Europe is trying to get rid of this burden and is seeking ways to convince its southern Mediterranean friends to collaborate.

In March 2014, the European Union and ten member states concluded a Mobility Partnership with Tunisia.

The declaration was signed by Cecilia Malmström, the then-EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Tahar Cherif, the Tunisian ambassador to Belgium and the European Union, and the ministers of the ten EU member states involved in the Partnership: Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The agreement was meant to support practical cooperation between Tunisia and EU member states on several relevant issues such as the returns of those who “irregularly” migrated to Europe, the reintegration of returnees readmitted by Tunisia and the development of Tunisia’s cooperation on readmission with relevant African countries.

To improve the management of migration, the EU also promised to support the development of a Tunisian biometric registry of the population.

In line with the Valletta Action Plan, announced at the Valetta summit on Migration (November 2015), Tunisia was, additionally, chosen to be a pilot country for the identification and implementation of legal migration schemes.

The European Commission has also proposed €500 million in additional macro-financial assistance, to be disbursed in 2016 and 2017.

The proposal, adopted by the Council and the European Parliament on 6 July 2016, represents the largest such operation ever carried out in the Southern Neighbourhood.

The Mobility Partnership provides a structured and comprehensive framework for the EU-Tunisia political dialogue on migration, and aims to improve the management of operational and financial support in this field.

The Mobility Partnership  has identified a wide range of priorities for migration management: mobility, legal migration and integration, the fight against illegal immigration and human trafficking, return and readmission, border management, migration and development, asylum and international protection.

Since 2011, but especially since the election in 2014 of President Béji Caïd Essebsi, migration was a regular point on the agenda of high-level meetings with the Tunisian authorities and civil society. Bilateral commitments under the Mobility Partnership include the opening of negotiations on a visa facilitation agreement and a readmission agreement. These negotiations with Tunisia were due to begin on 12 October 2016. But they did not.

Manipulation or political naïveté?

It is easy to understand from the Mobility Partnership agreement that Europe is not only seeking to protect its borders from African migrants and supposed terrorists, but also to establish “a system for protecting refugees and asylum seekers”.

The Mobility Partnership clearly cites, in Articles 7, 12 and 13 of the Joint Declaration, that the EU and Tunisia are “committed” to encouraging better integration of “migrants legally living in Tunisia”.

Articles 24 to 27 of the same document stipulate that, as part of this Partnership, Tunisia will be responsible for identifying “those migrants on its territory who are eligible for international protection, processing their asylum applications, applying the principle of ‘non-refoulement’ to them and providing them with lasting protection arrangements”.

Yet, the only refugees on Tunisian soil we know of are those gathered in the Choucha refugee camp, established early in 2011 in the far south of the country, to host African refugees fleeing Libya.

As the 2014 Mobility Partnership agreement did not specify the Choucha camp, we can only understand this statement as a decision to relocate in Tunisia those “irregular migrants” Europe wants, or is planning to, get rid of.

Hence rumours and hints that the EU is planning to build refugee camps on the Tunisia-Libyan borders, where potential migrants from sub-Saharan Africa would be gathered.

The issue has been a matter of fierce debate the last couple of weeks in Tunisia. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed formally denied that Tunisia has concluded any deal with Germany concerning the establishment of such camps on its soil.

When he met Chancellor Angela Merkel last week in Berlin, Chahed even refused the idea of facilitating the return of Tunisian “irregular immigrants” in Germany. He told his German hosts that these immigrants have still to be confirmed as Tunisians.

According to Merkel, Germany current hosts 1500 Tunisian migrants, and wants to send them back. However, Tunisia appears reluctant to cooperate.

Last week, Italy’s Corriere Della Sera revealed that Tunisia has agreed to host 200 migrants a month of those detained upon crossing from Libya. The Tunisian embassy in Rome formally denied this news while the Italian government did not.

It should be noted that Italy’s Foreign Minister, Angelino Alfano, paid a visit to Tunisia at the end of January. Tunisia’s Essebsi was in Italy a week later.

Is the Mobility Partnership bad for Tunisia?

The Mobility Partnership Tunisia signed with the EU has brought a series of enhancements for the country: financial assistance, visa negotiations, organised migration for qualified Tunisians, and border control assistance.

However, neighbouring Libya still suffers from military violence, religious extremism and political chaos. This constitutes a serious threat to the stability of Tunisia and, consequently, brings more risks to Europe.

Most international reports have recently sounded the alarm about the country’s deteriorating economy. High unemployment and corruption are frequently cited. These are obvious drivers of migration and, unless tackled, a serious threat to the Mobility Partnership.