Tunisia has always publically refuted reports that it “promised” Europe to accept hosting on its soil refugees from different African countries, but the EU could seize the opportunity of a war in Libya to convince Tunisia to do so, writes Mourad Teyeb.
Mourad Teyeb is a journalist and consultant based in Tunis.
Tunisia is mobilised to deal with an influx of refugees fleeing the war in Libya and has chosen the site of Bir Fatnassia to receive the expected migrants.
Bir Fatnassia, usually called Fatnassia, has been chosen to receive eventual migrants fleeing the war in Libya. It is 15 kilometers from Remada, a military zone famous for its military airport but also for its high rates of poverty and unemployment, big number of radicalized youth and an old tradition of smuggling activities.
Works to build tents and other facilities have not started yet, but Tunisian authorities, including Tataouine’s Governor and the regional Security Council, besides the representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), recently paid a visit to the Fatnassia site and officially started the necessary human, financial and logistics preparations.
But why is this refugee camp viewed with much suspicion in Tunisia and elsewhere?
Human Rights groups and activists are worried that the Fatnassia camp is conceived as a long-term “detention centre” for asylum seekers undesired by Europe.
Tunisia policing Europe’s borders
Tunisia has always publically refuted reports that it “promised” Europe to accept hosting on its soil refugees from different African countries.
Europe could seize the opportunity of a war in Libya to try again to convince Tunisia to do it. For example by offering certain economic incentives in return.
In March 2014, the European Union and ten member states concluded a Mobility Partnership (MP) with Tunisia.
The agreement was meant to support practical co-operation 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.
From the logistics preparations being made for the camp, facilities are very likely to be long-lasting zinc tents, rather than the shelters traditionally used by humanitarian organizations.
The capacity of the Fatnassia camp is estimated at 25.000 people in the first stage and can double when needed, according to several sources.
Many Libyans have houses, or relatives with houses, in the biggest Tunisian cities (Tunis, Sousse, Sfax etc.) which they regularly visit and which were used by most of those who fled the 2011 conflict. Some stayed for years.
Those Libyans who do not have shelter in major Tunisian cities are more likely to choose towns not far from the border: Tataouine, Medenine, Djerba, Zarzis etc.
Thus, these thousands of potential refugees in Fatnassia camp cannot be Libyans. Or cannot be only Libyans.
It is easy to understand from the MP 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 MP 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”.
Since 2011, but especially since the 2014 presidential and parliamentary elections, migration was a regular point on the agenda of high-level meetings with the Tunisian authorities and civil society.
Yet, Tunisians fear the security, social, economic and health dangers of having thousands of asylum-seekers in the country.
For many, Tunisia already suffers from huge and chronic socio-economic problems and is unable to support addition burden in the southern part of the country, the poorest, the most under-developed and the most vulnerable to radicalization.
The Citizenship and Liberties League (LCL), a Tataouine-based NGO, expressed “worries” that the Fatnassia camp is meant as “a permanent host” for refugees fleeing the conflict in Libya or irregular migrants deported from Europe.
Omar Abdelkader, a spokesperson for LCL, was recently reported as calling upon international and United Nations organizations “to assume their total humanitarian and financial responsibilities to avoid the scenarios experienced in Choucha camp and their repercussions on Tunisia which lives in a fragile economic and social situation”.
Imed Daimi, a politician and former MP, thinks the whole Fatnassia plan is “very suspicious” and warned against Tunisia becoming “Europe’s southern police”.
Daimi, who is an eminent political opposition personality and famous in Tunisia for denouncing corrupt politicians and businesses, says the choice of the site itself is questionable.
“Fatnassia is 75 km away from Dhehiba-Wazin border gate and 185 km away from the Ras Jedir one”, Daimi said in a recent Facebook post, meaning that the camp is not, geographically, a practical one. “Refugee camps are traditionally built either inside the countries witnessing conflicts or on the border of a neighboring country, similarly to Choucha camp”.
He added: “But Fatnassia is very close to Remada airport (until now for exclusive military use), which is undergoing improvement works which have no other reason than to make it capable of hosting possible flights from Europe”.
“Tunisia cannot become the police for Europe and we cannot bear Europe’s failure in dealing with Sub-Saharan Africa”, he warned.
Tunisia’s economic situation is bad: a growth rate that declined to 1% in 2019, high unemployment rates, landslide corruption and bureaucracy, the fragile security situation in neighbouring Libya…are the very reasons of social instability and migration to Europe.
The political situation in Tunisia is also lamentable: an incoherent and chaotic Parliament, an inexperienced president, a weak and decimated opposition, the failure to combat bureaucracy and corruption…all drowned Tunisia’s rulers in every-day tasks and made them unable to consider the country’s priorities and to pragmatically assess the geopolitical challenges.