Photo: European Commission
On the 16th of July 2023, the EU signed a migration deal with Tunisia, as was announced the month before. The deal includes an aid package worth more than 1 billion euros, aimed at supporting Tunisia’s economy and strengthening border management in order to limit the number of refugees entering Europe. The deal has been highly contested as it offers direct support for the repressive and autocratic rule of the Tunisian President Kais Saied without many strings attached. Furthermore, the deal does very little to properly acknowledge human rights. The shortcomings of this deal were quickly revealed, as the ongoing disastrous Tunisian expulsion of Black immigrants to deserts near the militarised Libyan and Algerian borders continued. These forced expulsions are a severe violation of international law and human rights. This article explains how Tunisia, despite its deal with the EU, illegally pushes out Black refugees.
Xenophobia and racism in Tunisia
In February 2023, President Saied made several racist remarks in a speech, mentioning “hordes of irregular migrants from sub-Saharan Africa” who come to Tunisia, bringing with them “violence, crime, and unacceptable practices” which are symptoms of a criminal plan designed to “change the demographic make-up” of the country. As a result of Saied’s racist rhetoric, racially motivated hate speech, discrimination, and violent attacks dramatically increased while targeting Black refugees in Tunisia. According to Wadih al-Asmar, president of EuroMed Rights, President Saied uses African refugees as a “scapegoat” to distract Tunisians from the country’s economic crisis. “It’s a way to direct the population’s anger towards someone else,” he said. Consequently, instead of blaming Saied’s poor governance, Tunisisians blame Black refugees for their country’s shortages, unemployment levels, and inflation.
The illegal mass expulsions of Black refugees
It should not come as a surprise that the Saied-fuelled racism in Tunisia has led to harassment and abuse of Black refugees by Tunisian authorities. Recently, the actions of Tunisian security forces reached a new low. In the first weeks of July 2023, hundreds of Black refugees were illegally expelled to the desert, where they ended up being left alone. Before that, the refugees, some of whom have regular legal status, had been arbitrarily arrested and forcibly transferred from the city of Sfax during raids by the Tunisian police, national guard, and military. Without food or water, they were abandoned in the militarised border zones in which they were pushed back from entering any country. In addition, during the expulsions, the foreigners, including children and pregnant women, were robbed, abused, beaten, and sexually assaulted. Furthermore, their phones, asylum seeker cards, food, and passports were taken away from them and destroyed. Following the expulsion, several of the victims have died.
Reactions to the expulsions
After news outlets and NGOs reported the disastrous human rights and international law violations in Tunisia, President Saied responded in a statement on the 8th of July, saying that the allegations of abuses against migrants are “lies” and “fake news”. He claimed that refugees were receiving humane treatment stemming from “our values”.
In Europe, the tragic events have led to further frustration and disillusionment with the EU-Tunisia deal. French MEP Mounir Satouri responded by stating: “It [the deal] is EU money on a silver platter for a president who has shifted Tunisia’s nascent democracy to an autocracy. For what purpose? To externalise migration management to him [Saied], even though Tunisian authorities are not respecting migrants’ rights”.
Lauren Seibert, refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch similarly stated that “by funding security forces who commit abuses during migration control, the EU shares responsibility for the suffering of migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Tunisia”.
What is next for the EU?
Right-wing European politicians, such as Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, who pushed for the deal with Tunisia, made a grave mistake by prioritising xenophobic sentiments over human rights. Sponsoring an explicitly racist and autocratic president goes against all of the EU’s democratic and progressive principles. Even worse, funding Tunisia’s abusive border management indirectly goes against international law. The EU is helping in putting Black Africans in danger for life.
The EU loses its credibility when it promotes solidarity within the EU while promoting xenophobia outside of it. As Human Rights Watch stated on the 19th of July: “the EU should suspend funding to Tunisian security forces for migration control and set clear human rights benchmarks for any further support”.
On the 26th of June, Foundation Max van der Stoel organised a political café, in which the EU-Tunisia deal was discussed in depth. Speakers included Dutch MP Kati Piri, MEP Tineke Strik, and journalist Fairouz Ben Salah. You can still watch the livestream of the political café (including English subtitles, by selecting Dutch subtitles and clicking on the ‘auto-translate’ button) on YouTube!
Written by Luna Sent