Remember the Tunisian revolution that ignited protests all over the Arab World in 2011? Well, one of its achievements was a law that penalizes racial discrimination and allows victims of racism to seek justice for verbal or physical abuse. That law, proposed by some civil society organizations and ratified almost unanimously by the Tunisian Assembly of People on October 9, 2018, was meant to be consistent with the principles of the revolution, which emphasized the dignity of all individuals and in accordance with the international human rights law. We, human rights activists, were proud of such achievement, as Tunisia was the second country in Africa to clearly condemn racism and hate speech.
Unfortunately like in many other areas, that pride was short-lived, mainly after the Tunisian President’s shocking and racially charged speech last February, which was followed by the relocation of Sub-Saharan migrants and asylum seekers to the buffer zone between the Tunisian and Libyan border. That attitude came under harsh criticism from democrats and human rights groups, both inside Tunisia and all over the world but encouraged the European Union officials (mainly the far right leaders) to sign a “Memorandum of Understanding”, providing the Tunisian government with financial and technical support to deter Europe-bound migration, presenting this phenomenon as “shared plague” between southern and northern states.
Following the Tunisian President’s speech at the National Security Council, wherein he accused sub-Saharan African migrants of being a plan to destabilize the Tunisian population and of causing crime waves in the country, many of them were targeted. Some young Tunisian people attacked them, breaking their doors down and setting fire to the buildings they were renting.
“We face discrimination on a daily basis, but it’s this rapid rise in this phenomenon that surprises me,” said one sub-Saharan woman to Inkyfada, a Tunisian web magazine.
According to Human Rights groups and eye witnesses, hundreds of Sub-Saharans were transported to the Tunisian and Libyan border where they were trapped, neither being able to return to Tunisia nor to enter Libya. Those who were interviewed by Human Rights Watch reported that their telephones had been destroyed, some had been beaten and “several others have died in the border area.” The American watchdog added that some witnesses said “Libyan men carrying machetes or other weapons had robbed some people and raped several women.”
Such violent reactions towards migrants seduced the EU to strike a deal with Tunisia, showing that what really matters for Europe is to block migrants, refugees or asylum seekers attempts to reach the Northern shore. That’s why on July 16, 2023, the EU and Tunisia signed an agreement for “strategic and comprehensive partnership.” Under such agreement, the EU will provide Tunisia with 675 million euros, some 105 million of which are going to be allocated to “migration management” through three main tasks:
- Combating irregular departures,
- Returns of undocumented Tunisian migrants,
- Return of undocumented migrants in Tunisia to their countries of origin,
While Sub-Saharan migrants were trapped at the border zone between Tunisia and Libya, with neither food nor shelter, the memorandum spoke of the need to respect human rights and dignity. That seemed like a joke!!
“The ill-judged agreement, signed despite mounting evidence of human rights abuses will result in a dangerous expansion of already failed migration policies” reads a statement issued by Amnesty International. “The migration agreement makes the EU complicit in human rights violations against asylum seekers, migrants and refugees.” Human rights and dignity of migrants? It’s been decades since agreements were made by EU leaders with south Mediterranean governments and they have been focused on clear goals: stopping undocumented migrants from reaching Europe through different means, tighter border control, militarization of the Mediterranean and externalization of its frontiers.
Says Alarm Phone Initiative, a hotline for boat people in distress, “If Tunisia carries out mass deportations, if Algerian and Libyan security forces assault and block the deported, if the EU politically sanctions and financially supports such violations, and International Organisations remain silent – what can we do when receiving calls from people who are slowly dying?”
In fact, the number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea has been increasing steadily (from 2014, more than 27,000 people have died or gone missing) due to two main factors: desperate undocumented migrants and asylum seekers often take rickety and overloaded boats at the risk of their lives. Besides, rescue activities led by NGOs are now criminalized and often obstructed. Moreover, last February, Italy passed a law that “limits charity-run ships carrying out more than one sea rescue at a time,” says France 24.
For decades now the EU and - sometimes individual states- have been relying on drastic but ineffective security policy to stop migrants, asylum seekers and refugees through tighter border control, increased militarization of the Mediterranean Sea and externalization of the frontiers. As I said in an op-ed for the International Journal on Human Rights in 2016, Relying on such tightened security policy is “ignoring the push factors that cause people to take the most important decision in their lives.”
In other words, as long as the social causes (unemployment, poverty, regional inequities…) are not properly tackled, repression and political violence are the rule in most African countries and mobility rules are not rethought, undocumented migration is going to increase in the coming years, contributing to more death tolls in the sea and more dependency on unscrupulous smugglers who take more dangerous routes, while giving legitimacy to repressive policies. Meanwhile the rhetoric on human rights, the so-called “cornerstone upon which the fabric of a united Europe rests” seems to be no more than a phony baloney.
Messaoud Romdhani is the former President of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights