Even though coverage of migration has dropped considerably since Israel’s war in Gaza was triggered by an attack from the Islamist terror organization Hamas on October 7, thousands of migrants have nevertheless continued trying to reach Europe via the Mediterranean Sea.
According to a recent statement by the Italian Interior Ministry, around 146,000 people arrived in Italy via small boat between January and November 2023 — a 65% increase compared to 88,476 persons in the same period in 2022. Half of them departed from Tunisia, authorities said.
However, in the same period, the Tunisian Coast Guard also prevented 69,963 people — double the 2022 figure of 31,297 — from crossing into Italian waters. Most of those migrants were intercepted near Tunisia’s eastern coastline, close to Sfax, which is only around 130 kilometers (80 miles) from Italy’s Lampedusa island.
Risk of ‘abuses against intercepted migrants’
The coast guard’s recently published statistics also point to a heavy increase in the number of non-Tunisians — 78% in 2023, compared to 59% in 2022 — making the dangerous journey.
One of those migrants is Enosso from Burkina Faso, who asked DW not to publish his last name. “I arrived in Tunisia three months ago and have tried to cross into Italy twice so far,” the 30-year-old told DW. “Each time, it cost around €1,000 ($1,091),” he added. However, the first journey ended after only 7 kilometers, the second after 12.
“The Tunisian Coast Guard [agents] were not violent, they only prevented us from crossing and returned us to Sfax,” said Enosso.
Not everyone is lucky enough to simply be sent back to Tunisia, Lauren Seibert, a refugee and migrant rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, told DW. This year, HRW documented multiple cases of mistreatment and unlawful collective expulsions by Tunisian police, military, National Guard and Coast Guard during and after boat interceptions.
“If the interceptions increase without effective oversight and accountability, there is a risk that we’ll keep seeing more abuses against intercepted migrants,” said Seibert.
Notwithstanding such risks, Mohammed Awal Saleh from the Republic of Benin is also waiting for his chance to migrate to Italy.
Tunisian police picked him up a few weeks ago and dropped him at an olive grove outside Sfax. “It rains now and we don’t know where we can take shelter,” he told DW.
Does the EU migration pact influence Tunisian migration?
In June, the European Commission offered Tunisian President Kais Saied a richly funded Partnership Program, also dubbed a “migration pact,” aimed at curbing migration to Europe.
At the time, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised up to €900 million ($967 million) in aid for economically strapped Tunisia, and a further €105 million in 2023 to curb irregular migration — nearly triple the amount the EU had given Tunis over the previous two years.
Saied, however, reiterated that his country would not become a migrant gatekeeper.
“So far, there is only a Memorandum of Understanding, it is not binding and lays out five areas of cooperation, such as energy transition or education, with only one pillar addressing migration directly,” Heike Löschmann, director of the Tunis office of the German Green Party affiliated Heinrich Böll Foundation, told DW.
Löschmann also said there are recurring misrepresentations in the media that Tunisia, unwilling to take alms, sent back €60 million from a first tranche of the “migration pact.”
“The reality is that the Tunisian government sent back a last outstanding payment for a post-pandemic economic recovery package unrelated to migration, but it obviously landed a good PR stunt,” explained Löschmann.
Still, Ramadan Ben Omar, an official in the Tunisian Forum of Economic and Social Rights, told DW that migration has been decreasing since October, and not only due to harsher sea conditions in autumn and winter. “Tunisian authorities have tightened border controls and started security campaigns against smugglers and boat manufacturing workshops,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hager Ali, a researcher at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies, a German think tank, told DW there “is a good chance that the migration dynamics didn’t have all that much to do with the migration deal.”
Ali said the increase in the number of non-Tunisians intercepted by the coast guard this year reflected the political situation in countries like Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Sudan, Eritrea and Libya.
“These countries have seen a surge in military coups, political and economic volatility, extreme violence, persecution and internal displacement in the past two years, which prompted many people to leave,” she added.
Löschmann of the Böll Foundation said this could also explain why the percentage of Tunisians among all migrants seeking to reach the EU dropped from 41% in 2022, to 22% in 2023, according to coast guard statistics.
Löschmann said younger Tunisians’ desire to leave the country remains unabated, but added that the overall “proportion of Tunisians among arrivals decreased because the number of migrants from other countries, particularly from sub-Saharan Africa, increased enormously.”
Moreover, conditions for migrants in Tunisia further deteriorated throughout 2023. In February, President Saied sparked a wave of violence against Black migrants by alleging they threatened to transform “Arab-Muslim” Tunisia into an “African” country.
And, over the summer, when thousands of non-Tunisian migrants were expelled to the desert near Libya, more than 100 died.
Economic crisis exacerbated by drought
According to Tunisia’s National Institute of Statistics, inflation remained at a high of 8.3% in November, while unemployment remained steady at 15%.
Meanwhile, the agricultural sector, which provides jobs for many migrants saving up for their journey to Europe, has been hampered by ongoing drought, resulting in a 16.4% contraction in economic output.
“Even buying food has become difficult, at times I can’t even afford ‘assida’ wheat dumplings anymore,” Mohammed Awal Saleh from Benin told DW.
In turn, observers have no doubt that the upcoming presidential elections in November 2024 will most likely be dominated by two topics: migration and the economic crisis.
Saied, who was democratically elected in October 2019, has been acting increasingly authoritarian since July 2021. He has also lost a lot of support since taking office, especially among young voters, said Ali.
“A lot is at stake for Kais Saied,” the researcher told DW, adding, “Unfortunately, we have seen over the last few years of European elections that vilifying migrants, especially from sub-Saharan Africa, works well as a campaign strategy because it misdirects voters’ frustration towards vulnerable people who provide an easy target.”
Source : DW