Tunisian President, Kaïs Saïed, during a meeting with his Italian counterpart, Sergio Mattarella, in Rome, July 24, 2023. HANDOUT / AFP
On the subject of irregular migration, nothing is going well between Tunisia and the European Union (EU). In explicit terms, President Kaïs Saïed rejected the 127 million euros in aid announced on September 22 by the European Commission, including 67 million allocated to an operational assistance program on migration, in addition to a budgetary support of 60 million euros. ” Tunisia […] does not accept charity or alms. Our country and our people do not want sympathy, but demand respect”declared Kaïs Saïed in a press release published Monday, October 2 in the evening.
“In this regard, Tunisia rejects what has been announced in recent days by the European Union, not because of the paltry amount, because all the wealth in the world is not worth a grain of our sovereignty for our people, but because that this proposal is in contradiction with the memorandum of understanding signed in Tunis”, he underlined, with reference to the memorandum of understanding signed between the two parties in July, to cooperate in particular in the fight against irregular migration. Kaïs Saïed then wanted to reaffirm ” the position [de la Tunisie] to keep only one’s own borders”.
Presented as support for the implementation of this agreement, the financial aid was announced as part of a “ten point plan” exposed on September 17 in Lampedusa by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, after around ten thousand migrants landed there in the space of a few days from the Tunisian coast, located less than 150 km away from the Italian island.
Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers The island of Lampedusa, where more than 6,000 migrants arrived this week, at the heart of the management of migratory flows towards Europe
Intended to help Italy cope with this record influx of migrants, the plan notably provides for“study the possibilities of developing naval missions in the Mediterranean”a wish expressed earlier by the President of the Italian Council, Giorgia Meloni, and which echoes the “maritime blockade”a controversial electoral promise defended by the Italian leader during the 2022 general elections.
In addition, the European Commission’s plan mentions “the possibility of a working arrangement between Tunisia and Frontex and of a coordination task force within Europol to fight in a more targeted manner against migrant smuggling on the migration route to Lampedusa via Tunisia”, in addition to accelerating the supply of equipment and strengthening “the training of the coast guard and other Tunisian law enforcement services”.
Along the same lines, French President Emmanuel Macron gave his support to Giorgia Meloni and indicated, during an interview broadcast on September 24, that he wanted to condition the budgetary aid provided to Tunisians and offer in exchange “to embark experts and equipment on their coasts to dismantle smuggling networks”. “It’s a respectful partnership”he assured, recalling that“in a few hours we had several thousand migrants arriving in Lampedusa and all leaving from the port of Sfax”, second city in Tunisia and main starting point for candidates for the crossing to Europe.
The next day, Kaïs Saïed informed of his “decision to postpone the visit planned by a European Commission delegation to Tunisia to a later date”instructing his foreign minister to “notify the European party”according to a laconic press release published on its Facebook page, while a delegation of European officials was expected during the week “to discuss the implementation of the memorandum of understanding, in particular priority actions”, as part of the financial support announced. On the European side, a diplomatic source is trying to delay by evoking a simple “calendar problem” and a visit which will take place ” very soon “.
Read also: The central Mediterranean once again becomes the first irregular gateway to Europe
In Tunisia, European migration policy and Emmanuel Macron’s comments were considered by several media, NGOs and political parties (including opposition) as “an attack on national sovereignty”.
The Democratic Current, whose former secretary general Ghazi Chaouachi has been imprisoned for more than six months – like around twenty other opponents – for “plot against state security”, condemned a “declaration which reflects a colonialist and tutelary mentality still present among certain leaders of the northern shore of the Mediterranean”saying that France’s weak support for the post-revolution democratic transition has “shaken our confidence in its intentions to support a real partnership based on respect for sovereignty, strengthening democracy and respect for human rights”.
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For the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), an NGO that monitors migration issues in Tunisia, “the French president, against a backdrop of one-upmanship and a power struggle, is pushing the limits of the security approach to its extreme to contain the right to move freely”and “a process which brought the extreme right to the summit of power in a morally bankrupt Europe”.
More than two months after the signing of the memorandum of understanding aimed at increasing border control in the southern Mediterranean, the Tunisian authorities seem overwhelmed by a growing number of departures to Europe. After the record influx of migrants in Lampedusa in mid-September, Tunis intensified its operations against sub-Saharan nationals taking refuge in the historic center of Sfax, while bringing them closer to rural localities close to departure zones for Europe.
Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers “They throw the migrants here”: in El Amra in Tunisia, place of refoulement and port of departure to Europe
In July, at the time of negotiations between the EU and Tunisia, thousands of migrants were expelled from their homes following a veritable manhunt, and displaced in the middle of the desert on the Algerian and Libyan borders. The NGO Human Rights Watch, which documented these abuses, called on the European Commission to “stop ignoring the abuses committed by Tunisia against migrants”.
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