Faced with the resurgence of all too familiar migration-management challenges, the European Union has a habit of returning to a familiar set of policy proposals. European policymakers have again raised the idea of shifting the processing of asylum seekers and irregular migrants outside EU borders, with some proposals floated this summer describing the creation of “disembarkation platforms” in North Africa to deal with those intercepted while crossing the Mediterranean. Concurrently, some EU policymakers have made calls to mobilize funding to increase Tunisia’s border-control capabilities in light of increasing departures from its shores. The reappearance of Tunisia amid these chaotic political debates may be the latest example of the bloc recycling old policy solutions, even when contemporary developments call for new actions.
Relations between Tunisia and EU Member States over migration policy have long been transactional, with European financing and assistance offered in exchange for promises by the Tunisian government to keep unauthorized migrants from leaving its ports. True cooperation and work toward jointly agreed aims have been rare. Especially during the last decade of the regime of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali—in power from 1987 to 2011—most observers agreed that the Tunisian government controlled migration flows according to what Ben Ali was getting in exchange from Europe. The examples of cooperation that do exist have mostly emerged since the 2011 revolution, mainstreamed in the mobility partnership that Tunisia signed with the European Union in 2014, though skepticism remains among Tunisian officials about its value.
EU policymakers appear to still view irregular migration from Tunisia through a transactional lens, with many quick to interpret a recent increase in departures from the Tunisian coast as a conscious “opening of the tap” by Tunisian authorities. As departures quickly rose from a few hundred in the first months of 2017 to reach more than 6,000 by the end of the year, many EU officials began to wonder what message Tunisian authorities were trying to send to them. Yet this conclusion may say more about EU policymakers’ reliance on similarly transactional approaches to migration management in other parts of the region, notably Turkey and Libya, than on-the-ground conditions, as closer analysis of socioeconomic and political dynamics in Tunisia shows.
The Tunisian migration-governance system faces an exceedingly delicate tradeoff when it comes to permitting versus restricting irregular departures. By untangling these dynamics, this article will examine why the recent revival of EU attention to Tunisia may prove counterproductive to the aim of curbing Mediterranean crossings. It draws on interviews conducted between April 2017 and May 2018 with governmental and nongovernmental actors involved in Tunisian migration governance, as well as residents and EU policymakers, to gauge how EU efforts to step up Tunisia’s border enforcement and its suggestions that the country host a disembarkation platform—despite, it would seem, no sign the Tunisian government would be willing to agree to such a scheme—place significant pressure on the country. As with other security-oriented approaches to migration management, these moves have led to a domestic politicization of the topic of migration, which Tunisian politicians fear could prove politically costly for the young democracy. And should these European plans fail to materialize, as they have in the past, and unauthorized departures continue to occur with regularity, EU leaders may be left with the question: was it is worth damaging relations with Tunisia and creating additional problems for its already fragile political system?
Socioeconomic and Political Instability
Since the 2011 Jasmine Revolution that toppled the Ben Ali regime, Tunisia has suffered from both socioeconomic instability and disappointment in unfulfilled promises that emerged during the Arab Spring uprising. The economy has stagnated, with national GDP falling by 2 percent in 2017, and a rising unemployment rate that reached 15 percent in the same year. Tunisian youth have been particularly hard hit, with 36 percent out of work. Adding to this difficult situation, inflation rose from 4.5 percent in January 2017 to 8 percent in July 2018, making the purchase of consumer goods harder even for Tunisians who are employed. One middle-class Tunisian, during the year’s Ramadan, reported in an interview, “I even have difficulty in buying the meat for Iftar!”
Although the inflation was planned for as part of a series of International Monetary Fund-backed reforms to raise lagging Tunisian exports, many Tunisians—rich and poor, employed and unemployed alike—have felt their quality of life deteriorate. An increasing number of Tunisians, faced with these conditions, have decided to seek better opportunities abroad. One EU Member State official based in Tunis, discussing why migrants leave the country, stated: “I know I might be cynical, but for me the question is ‘Why should they stay?’”
This difficult economic reality, and its impacts on the livelihoods of Tunisians, has also resulted in popular frustrations being expressed more vehemently through strikes and riots that are occurring with increased frequency. The target of these demonstrations is the current government, which many view as responsible for failing to deliver promised economic growth. Notably, such protests are not defined by party politics as the Tunisian government is composed at present of a grand coalition in which all six major parties are represented. The fact that the nascent democratic system itself, rather than individual politicians or parties, has fallen in the crosshairs of protests is a sign of how fragile democracy is in Tunisia.
Political uncertainty has thus become the new normal in post-revolution Tunisia. Six heads of government have succeeded the revolution, with even more cabinet reshuffles. Daily clashes between cabinet members highlight the precariousness of the agreement that established the grand coalition (known as the Pact of Carthage). Due in part to this fragility, the pact set out only general policy objectives, such as “increase employment,” with little detail on the content of the reforms and political choices needed to reach such objectives. In practice, this vagueness has meant that individual ministers are quickly blamed for decisions that prove unpopular or that do not produce results.
Migration is far from being a political priority for the government at present, yet it could easily become politically toxic. This could come as a result of external relations with the European Union, which often presses the country to tighten its control over irregular migration flows in the region, or it may stem from domestic backlash should the Tunisian government introduce restrictive and repressive measures that limit emigration.
The weakness of the post-revolution government creates yet another incentive to maintain a low profile with regards to the delicate subject of migration, with no minister, including the secretary of state for migration, willing to pay the political cost of taking unpopular action. The unclear circumstances that led to the firing of Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem on June 6, 2018 illustrate the precarious position in which cabinet ministers find themselves; while his dismissal was officially explained as a response to the deaths of more than 60 migrants after a boat capsized, with Brahem blamed for letting migrants depart from Tunisia irregularly, various sources have reported that this was used as a pretext to settle more profound political divergences between the minister and the head of government.
The Evolution of Tunisian Emigration
Emigration has long been part of Tunisian society, particularly since “the French and Germans came here to recruit our workers in the 1970s,” as a Tunisian official recalled in an interview. In the 1980s, Italy also became a common destination for Tunisian labor migrants, and given the proximity of the two countries, this migration was largely circular. It was only in the 1990s, when European governments introduced new visa requirements for Tunisians, that irregular migration came to the fore. For years, unauthorized departures were largely controlled by the Ben Ali regime, which allowed them to increase or decrease at strategic moments to enable the country to strike new deals with European policymakers, most notably with the Italian government. The demise of Ben Ali’s regime led to an abrupt rise in departures, with more than 23,000 Tunisians reaching the Italian coast in 2011. By the end of the year, and after the re-establishment of border controls, the situation stabilized and the number of migrants finding their way to Italy in most subsequent years dropped to the hundreds.
Yet in 2017, remembering the negotiating tactic employed by the Ben Ali regime, EU officials and politicians quickly became concerned by the sudden change in arrivals between August and September. While Italy recorded relatively few Tunisian unauthorized arrivals each month leading up to July 2017, in September this figure rose to 901. Tunisia became a top origin country for irregular migrants arriving in Italy, accounting for 6,092 arrivals in 2017 overall. This trend has continued into 2018, with 4,742 Tunisian arrivals between January and early October.
This increase in arrivals, without a clear explanation for what was causing it, led European officials to frame the issue as a new emergency. Yet this crisis framing has not been shared by observers on the other side of the Mediterranean; interviewees in Tunisia have not described this increase as particularly problematic, nor have they reported it becoming a top domestic political issue. Compared to interviews conducted the year before with actors from the same Tunisian migration-governance circles, no new urgency emerged in 2018 discussions. In sharp contrast to the European politics of migration, Tunisian politicians have generally preferred to keep migration issues below the political radar, given their potential to quickly escalate and create problems for the political system.
The Departures Conundrum
By attributing the increase in departures from Tunisia to a conscious decision by the country’s government, EU actors and Member State politicians have largely ignored the socioeconomic and political conditions that are shaping contemporary migration. Their interpretation appears to be rooted at least in part in memory of the Ben Ali regime. It also likely reflects the modus operandi the European Union has adopted elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. In countries such as Libya, for example, the European Union and its Member States have taken a quid pro quo attitude toward cooperating on migration, exchanging funding and technical equipment or training in return for partner-country promises to reduce unauthorized maritime departures. Yet analysis of the Tunisian migration-governance system in the years since the 2011 revolution suggests little evidence to substantiate this interpretation.
An important shift can be seen in how migrants and migration are characterized in Tunisian policy debates. During the early 2000s, when the Tunisian government used migration as a bargaining chip to acquire international legitimacy and resources, unauthorized migrants were treated as pawns and deserters by top political leaders. After the revolution, this framing changed, mainly as a result of the significant involvement of the Tunisian diaspora in the post-revolution political arena. Tunisian emigrants have increasingly become seen as individuals looking for opportunities that their homeland was not able to provide them, while simultaneously keeping strong ties to the country and staying involved in its development.
In light of this more positive framing of emigrants and emigration, migration controls now represent a conundrum for the Tunisian authorities: far from viewing irregular migration as a significant problem, many have come to see it as an economic and political safety valve, capable of easing domestic unemployment and political unrest, and as an economic boon in the form of remittances and labor-market assets brought home by those who return. In 2017 alone, the World Bank estimated U.S. $1.9 billion in remittances were sent to Tunisia via formal channels, representing 4.7 percent of the country’s GDP. Yet there is also a sense among Tunisian policymakers that irregular migration should be contained as the risks of large-scale departures becoming politicized are great, especially considering the existence of a very active Tunisian civil society ready to hold the government accountable for its economic failures and border-control actions.
The Tunisian government is worried that the very fact that increasing numbers of young Tunisians are willing to embark on such a hazardous journey shows that the promises of the democratic transition are failing to materialize. Moreover, changes in regional migration dynamics following the 2017 crackdown on departures from Libya potentially increased the number of sub-Saharan, Middle Eastern, and Asian migrants looking to Tunisia as an alternate transit point in their journeys toward Europe. By enacting stricter controls on unauthorized departures from its shores, as well as a repressive stance towards irregular immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, Tunisia has thus far kept transit migration to very low levels. Despite Italian authorities reporting the arrival of growing numbers of sub-Saharan migrants who travelled through Tunisia, the overall numbers remain small. Interviews conducted in Tunisia show that the odds of successfully crossing through the country to reach Italy are against irregular migrants; one EU Member State official reported that while Italy counted the arrival of 6,000 migrants who departed from Tunisia in 2017, 9,000 more were apprehended before leaving the Tunisian coast.
Still, interviewees from international and nongovernmental organizations in Tunis report that while Tunisian legislation treats irregular migration as a very serious offense, in practice most Tunisians apprehended while attempting to depart are soon let go—a further sign of the overall positive attitude many Tunisian authorities have toward emigration. Unauthorized migrants from other countries apprehended by Tunisian authorities are generally handed over to the International Organization for Migration and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which are expected to provide basic care and sometimes assist in returning them to their origin countries. Thus, even though these other migrants receive differential treatment, they generally do not face the full extent of the restrictive tools laid out in Tunisian legislation adopted by Ben Ali, which include imprisonment and deportation.
Tunisian politicians generally view border enforcement, however scattered and uneven, as necessary to make sure that the Tunisian coast does not become a launch pad for migrants seeking to reach Europe, as this would lead to instability in Tunisia. Though perceived as necessary, even this level of migration control represents a dilemma for those enforcing it. Security officials can easily become the target of public criticism or scrutiny following dramatic events related to a tightening of border security, such as the October 2017 collision of a Tunisian coast guard vessel with a boat carrying 80 migrants that resulted in the latter sinking and the reported death of 30 migrants. At the same time, border officials are also held responsible for tragedies tied to the failure to control unauthorized departures, as in the case of the capsizing of a boat of about 200 migrants and the deaths of at least 50—an incident that led to the firing or transfer of various middle-management figures within the Tunisian security forces. The Tunisian security apparatus thus walks a fine line between being viewed as too heavy handed and not proactive enough.
It is this conundrum that has informed the government’s ambiguous attitude toward the departure of unauthorized migrants from Tunisia, and its consistent efforts to depoliticize the topic of migration in order to avoid public scrutiny. Any relationship between Tunisia and the European Union or its Member States needs to take this dynamic into account, and the political stakes are rising as the Tunisian government struggles to make good on the changes promised by the country’s transition to democracy.
Implications for Future EU-Tunisia Relations
Thus far, few European policy discussions of Tunisian departures have considered either the motivations of migrants leaving the country or the difficulties and tradeoffs Tunisian authorities face in deciding how to deal with irregular migration. In this complex and evolving context, it is overly simplistic to pin the recent increase in departures on a single factor, such as a government decision about border controls. Migration is no longer being used by Tunisian leaders as a bargaining chip, and EU policymakers’ framing of EU-Tunisia relations on this basis appears to be misguided. This assumption also deprives migrants and asylum seekers of their agency, ignoring the reasons that underlie their choices to seek a better life abroad.
The EU approach to migration relations with Tunisia may run into serious obstacles should it continue to ignore dynamics within Tunisia. Expectations that EU funding for increased Tunisian border controls will lead to a significant reduction in departures are thus likely to remain frustrated. In Spring 2018, EU policymakers, scrambling to answer the question of how to deal with migrants rescued at sea, began to publicly paint partnership with North African countries, including Tunisia, as a solution to the bloc’s migration problems, with plans to set up disembarkation centers to receive and process migrants rescued in between Libya and Italy. However, these statements were made without any sign of agreement from Tunisian authorities. In June 2018, Tunisia's ambassador to the European Union, Tahar Cherif, was even reported as saying: “The proposal was put to the head of our government a few months ago during a visit to Germany, it was also asked by Italy, and the answer is clear: No!”
In July 2018, in an effort to drive this point home to the European Union and push back against the perception that it could be a safe place to disembark intercepted migrants, Tunisia closed its ports to a private supply ship that had rescued 40 migrants in the Maltese search-and-rescue zone. After being denied authorization to disembark in Italy, France, and Malta, the Tunisian-flagged vessel returned to Tunisia but was left at sea for 22 days before eventually being allowed to port on humanitarian grounds—a strong statement about migration policy made at the expense of migrants’ rights.
The very public discussion of Tunisia as a potential partner for EU migration-management efforts risks both disappointing European publics, should they fail to happen, and endangering the fragile political balance within Tunisia. It is dubious that any sovereign government would appreciate being chosen without consenting to a plan as politically charged as this. It also contravenes the “golden rule” for dealing with Tunisia on migration issues, as identified by an EU Member State official: “if you want to ripen successes with Tunisia on migration issues, first thing to do is not to embarrass them.” Publicly blaming the Tunisian government for supposedly sending its criminals to Europe, as done by Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, and heavy-handedly pushing Tunisia to host a disembarkation and reception facility is unlikely to convince Tunisian politicians to alter their stance on migration. Increasing funding for Tunisia’s border controls, on its own, is also unlikely to result in the outcomes hoped for, as it does not address the tradeoffs facing Tunisian politicians and officials.
Actors in European migration-policy circles may find more success in an approach designed in collaboration with their Tunisian counterparts, one that reflects the socioeconomic and political complexities of post-revolutionary Tunisian society. Either way, the next moves EU policymakers make in discussions of how to manage irregular migration in the Mediterranean have undeniably important implications for Tunisia, and the stability of its fledgling democracy.
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This article draws on research that received funding from the European Research Council under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ERC grant agreement no. 340430 for the project Prospects for International Migration Governance, awarded to Professor Andrew Geddes. Further details about the project can be found at: www.migrationpolicycentre.eu/migprosp/. The author thanks Dr. Matteo Villa of the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) for sharing some of the arrivals data used in this article.