Migration policy in Tunisia: Fortress Europe in North Africa

To ward off terrorism, the EU is building border facilities for Tunisia. But the country is reluctant to become a detention centre for transit migrants.

2011: A refugee from Ghana at the border between Libya and Tunisia Foto: dpa

Of course the border with Libya is open. Or at least porous. This was repeatedly asserted during investigations in Tunisia in early 2015, by the political side as well by civil society groups. At the official border crossing points, there were controls; however, according to these claims, for those who knew the ropes or had the necessary money on hand, it was relatively easy to cross the national border that extends, in large part, all the way across the desert.

Among the North African neighbour states, the “open door“ policy was viewed as one accomplishment of the “Arab Spring“. No-one could, or would want to, halt the daily border traffic in southern Tunisia. That would deprive the already impoverished local population of its livelihood.

According to the statements of workers from international organisations, at the controlled border crossings, about 100 dollars would be demanded on the quiet in order to continue travelling into Libya. Syrians used this route through the South of Tunisia when fleeing to Europe. The route that passed through Turkey, from there by airplane to Algeria, across the border to Tunisia and then on to Libya, in search of a boat that would carry them across the Mediterranean Sea, was viewed in early 2015 as a less costly and lower-risk alternative to the so-called Balkan route through Eastern Europe.

After the attack on the Bardo Museum in the Tunisian capital in late March 2015, the atmosphere in the country changed overnight. After the revolution of 2011, representatives of the various Tunisian transitional governments had appeared noticeably reserved with regards to European ambitions to involve Tunisia more deeply in the expansion of its border and migration controls. As Tunisian civil society grew stronger, the hope for a democratic, human rights-based policy on migration and refugees was palpable. In early 2015, practically from one day to the next, these efforts were once again subordinated to the interests of national security. The border to Libya was closed out of fear of further terrorist invasions. The attack on tourists on the beach at Sousse in the following summer further reinforced the abrupt return to a repressive configuration of Tunisian border and migration policy.

The dictator as border protector

The EU and its member states energetically support Tunisia's security-oriented comeback: Representing a last remaining hope for democracy, the country is supposed to be preserved against the chaos threatening its neighbour states and supported in its aspirations toward democracy and a free market economy patterned on a Western role model. As a secure transit land along the central Mediterranean route, it is also intended to play a key part in re-stabilising the European border regime.

A retrospective: In the 1990s, as European states began jointly securing their external borders, co-operation with Tunisia played only a minor role. Italy already maintained good relations with the then-dictator Ben Ali and thereby effectively tied Tunisia through a bilateral co-operation agreement into the expanding European compartmentalisation regime. Under pressure from Europe, the authoritarian regime prohibited and criminalised “irregular migration“ by law, starting in 2004, controlled its sea borders and thereby effectively lay the groundwork for pre-planned migration control based on the European model.

Vor „dramatischer“ Migration aus Afrika warnt die deutsche Regierung, von einem „Marshallplan“ ist die Rede. Doch die Milliardensummen, die Europa in Afrika ausgeben will, dienen nicht nur dem Kampf gegen Armut. Erklärtes Ziel der neuen EU-Afrikapolitik ist es, Flüchtlinge und Migranten schon tief im Innern des Kontintents aufzuhalten. Die taz berichtet seit Mitte November in einem Rechercheschwerpunkt darüber, zu finden unter taz.de/migcontrol.

Die Recherche wurde gefördert von Fleiß und Mut e. V. (cja)

It was only after the fall of President Ben Ali that Tunisia consequently become a “problem“ for Europe in terms of border and migration policy. A brief historical moment of reduced and disorganised border surveillance during the uprising in early 2011 was enough to allow 25,000 migrants to cross the sea to Italy. As war broke out in Libya and thousands fled from violence and instability, first into neighbouring Tunisia and then further on to Europe, the arrivals in Italy nearly doubled. Added to this came the great movement of refugees along the Balkan route. In reaction to these events, which Europe called a “refugee crisis“, Italy imposed a state of emergency and France and Denmark suspended the Schengen Agreement and closed their national borders.

Money for expulsion

The European states were in agreement that unregulated migration to Europe on this scale was to be averted in the future at all costs. Despite multiple manifest displays of humanitarian concern and commendation for the democratic turnaround, the EU offered no appreciable new responses to the migration policy challenges of the “Arab Spring“. In essence, it pushed the Tunisian transitional government to re-establish the co-operations involving matters of return and border security that had existed before the revolution, in order to stabilise the fragile, momentary border regime in the Mediterranean.

To do this, at first the EU mainly offered Tunisia money. The EU indicates that since 2011, payments to Tunisia thereby doubled overall. Up until 2016, they add up to €3.5 billion in total. The numerous bi- and multilateral agreements, “partnerships“ and “dialogues“ that were made with Tunisia in this period focus primarily on so-called positive incentives. More European funds for development and democracy promotion were meant to prompt Tunisia to take back more “irregular migrants“ from Europe and deter them from crossing the Mediterranean in the future.

In the form of civil-military co-operation the EU was fulfilling Italy's wish, as well as its own, to strengthen border protection in the central Mediterranean. In the context of the operation “Hermes“, starting in 2011, the European border protection agency Frontex attempted to detect and impede irregular border crossings. In 2015, its mandate was extended within the framework of Operation FrontexPlus. To this day, there exists no official agreement between Frontex and the Tunisian state to formalise the operative teamwork and legitimate their “rescue“ of migrants by returning them to Tunisia; in practice, Frontex nonetheless carries out direct expulsions continually by handing over refugees on the sea to the Tunisian military.

If Germany had its way, this practice, which has thus far been informal, would prospectively become an official procedure within European border management in the Mediterranean. German involvement in the area of Tunisian security extends back to 2004. In the name of “combatting terror“, it was reinforced in 2015 with training support, technical equipment, a liaison office of the German police in Tunis and €100 million, and focused on securing the land border with Libya. This was followed in 2016 by further training missions, deliveries of speedboats, a document testing laboratory and, in part, military equipment and devices for border security, mostly produced by Airbus. From Germany's perspective, apparently not only terrorists but also refugees and migrants should be stopped by these sponsored border protection measures.

Reluctant implementation

The EU has also been expanding its involvement for further border security in North Africa since 2015, in the name of “combatting international terror“. With the support of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), as well as the UN refugee agency UNHCR and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), it is attempting to shift the failed mission to bolster Libyan border protection (EUBAM Libya) over to Tunisia. Under EUBAM Tunisia, €23 million are earmarked over the next three years for the reform of the Tunisian security sector. Over half of the money is designated to expand border protection, including, for example, three so-called situation centres at the borders to Algeria and Libya.

Tunisia may gratefully accept European money, but so far, it remains hesitant to implement its co-operation promises in the area of migration control. After the revolution in 2011, the representatives of the various transitional governments were no longer willing to play “doorkeeper“ to Europe. It proved especially reluctant to implement the security-oriented approach being forced upon it by the EU, against the will of an increasingly self-confident and organised civil society. Even until today, Tunisia has refused to become the official main receiving country for migrants “rescued“ from the Mediterranean Sea by EU border protection agency Frontex and European member states. Even the number of migrants who have actually been returned from Europe on the basis of bilateral agreements is negligible.

As to the implementation of a functional system for asylum, which was to have been developed with support from UNHCR starting in 2012, skepticism and disagreement prevail. Many fear that this could encourage the EU in the future to not only return refugees and migrants back to Tunisia, but to also generally contain them there.

In Europe, recommendations come up time and again for so-called reception centres, where refugees in North Africa would apply for asylum and, if necessary, also wait for their relocation to Europe. The most prominent recommendation dates back to a German-British initiative from 2004. In the years that followed, the so-called Blair-Schily Plan was repeatedly taken out of the drawer and considered, yet due to concerns about human rights and asylum policy, it never gained a majority in the EU. Just how much such concerns have changed within the EU can be seen in the conclusion of the Turkey Agreement in March 2016, in which Turkey is to be compensated with €6 billion and the prospective facilitation of visas for its own citizens in exchange for taking back, and “providing temporary protection to“, Syrian refugees.

Expulsion to the desert

It hasn't gone this far in Tunisia yet. As long as there is no functional system for asylum in Tunisia, people who have been “rescued“ while fleeing and are sent there have almost no chance to validate their right to asylum and gain adequate protection. According to a report by the UN Special Envoy in 2013, irregular border crossings and sojourns in Tunisia can still be punished by imprisonment. After the revolution, this practice was at first suspended, but the corresponding law from 2004 was never abolished.

With regards to migrants who are rescued or returned to Tunisia, the law is still being repeatedly applied in a deliberate way today. Those caught under it are incarcerated in one of the so-called reception centres. Many migrants coming from sub-Saharan Africa who were apprehended in Tunisia without valid papers are also imprisoned there. However, the Tunisian state lacks the money to deport them. Instead, it charges a fine for the period of the irregular stay in the country. This must be paid, along with the cost of their own plane ticket, by the migrants themselves in order to effectively “bail themselves out“ of jail and “deport themselves“. If the migrants or their families cannot pay the fast-growing sums, they may be deported without warning to the desert – formerly to Libya, now increasingly to Algeria.

The Tunisian state makes money from the irregular and precarious presence of migrants in the country and seems to be in no hurry to change the legal foundation of these arbitrary, opaque practices. During a stay in Tunisia in early 2015, it was possible to observe how “irregular“ migrants were being driven out of the large cities in the North through arrests, incarcerations and deportations, away from the proximity to the coast and out of the focus of international publicity. “Tunisia keeps its coastal borders sealed, there's no problem with migration here“ was the message directed at Europe. In the South, by contrast, the Tunisian state left its borders porous and allowed migrants stay as mobile as they liked, for the most part. Knowing that the migrants' only chance is the route across Libya and the Mediterranean to Europe, one might have hoped, through this tactic, to be rid of the “problem“ at some point. For this, there would be no need to implement EU-sponsored measures, only to selectively look the other way.

Tunisia becomes a secure third state

However, Tunisian interest in controlling migration and borders changed fundamentally in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2015. As it became known that the assassinators came from Libya, or were trained there, Tunisia immediately closed its border to the neighbouring country. With financial support from Germany and the USA, in late 2015 the Tunisian government even started construction on a “separation barrier“, 168 kilometres long and 2 metres high, along the Libyan border. Whether this will be implemented in the future additionally as a defence against refugees and migrants on the way to Europe, as expected by Germany and the EU, remains to be seen.

In reaction to the EU's so-called refugee crisis of 2015, its member states have agreed upon new initiatives intended to help them to expand migration and border control continually further across the African continent. In order to reinforce co-operation with so-called third states, it seems that not only “positive incentives“ are to be provided from now on, but additionally, “negative sanctions“ will be used if a country does not co-operate.

As it appears in the “Partnership Framework for co-operation with third countries“, in the first place, the EU is pursuing the goal of creating conditions to “enable migrants and refugees to stay close to home and avoid people taking dangerous journeys“. With the “Protection and Development Programme for North Africa“, it has already created a new financial instrument for this. It is set to equip the IOM with €10 million to build up capacities in North Africa in the area of asylum and to provide better protection for migrants there in the future. Thus the goal of current EU policy toward Tunisia is nothing less than to make the country into a “secure“ location where migrants on the way to Europe can be held and expelled.

Negative incentives

Secondly, by conducting swift, smooth expulsions the EU wants to deter migrants from crossing to Europe. For this purpose, as well, it is courting Tunisia vigorously. In October it sent the surprising news that it wished to resume negotiations on a mobility partnership that had proceeded rather haltingly since 2011. In essence, the agreement signed by Tunisia in 2014 promises visa facilitation, particularly for its highly qualified national citizens, if in return, the country takes back migrants who have entered the EU via Tunisia. In practical terms, this has not yet been implemented. The EU is trying to move implementation along with a “flexible approach“ and to negotiate both central aspects of re-admittance and visa facilitation in a “parallel“ yet “separate“ manner. The emphasis on two separate agreements obscures the otherwise unmistakable similarity to the Turkey Agreement.

If Tunisia continues to resist co-operation in taking back and providing protection for migrants from the EU, it may lead to negative consequences for European support in the country. Tunisia is one of 24 focus countries in which the EU wants to make its support in all fields of policy dependent upon the country's co-operation in “combatting irregular migration“ Re-admitting its own citizens and transit migrants is also a central element of this. In concrete terms, the EU is demanding the acceptance of its own issued return papers and the introduction of biometric data processing within border management. After Jordan and Lebanon, Tunisia is the next country with which the EU is striving for investigation probes in this context. From this, it may be presumed that the deal with Turkey will soon be followed by a deal with Tunisia.

There is much to indicate that, in the future, Tunisia is intended to play a key role in European policy on migration prevention and expulsions along the central Mediterranean route. Thus far, in any case, Tunisia resists becoming North Africa's largest “outdoor prison“ for Europe's unwelcome migrants. Signs of protest from within civil society can already be heard.

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