Tunisia reactivates its collaboration with the EU in the fight against irregular immigration

The Coast Guard resumed its enforcement activities at the same time that Von der Leyen announced new plans with the North African country, in a letter to the European Council

A boat full of migrants is intercepted by the Tunisian National Guard off the city of Sfax, in southern Tunisia, in October of 2022.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Tunisia has reactivated its collaboration as a border agent of the European Union. The decision of the North African country came after a clash at the beginning of the fall, when President Kais Saied declared a financial aid package of 127 million euros ($139 million) as “laughable.” The funds — meant to be provided by the EU — were tied to the pact to combat irregular migration, which was signed early in 2022 between Tunis and Brussels. Displeased, the head of state subsequently canceled an institutional visit by the European Commission. The disagreements with the EU also translated into less immigration control by the Tunisian Coast Guard.

Despite the tensions over the implementation of the Memorandum of Understanding with the EU — which was signed in July and sponsored by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni — the Tunisian Coast Guard resumed its activities in October. At the same time, President Saied has since smoothed over differences with Brussels. The data shows that, by comparison, the Coast Guard had relaxed its operations in the summer, just when more people were taking to the sea.

Over the last eight years, the Tunisian authorities used to intercept an average of 48% of all migrants leaving the country’s coasts. But in July — when the Memorandum of Understanding between Saied and the EU was signed — the figure was around only 15%. By August, interceptions fell even further, to just 4%. However, this past September, they rose again, to 21%.

In October and November of 2023, almost 20,000 people arrived in Italy from Tunisian beaches. The migratory route between the North African country and Italy became the busiest in the Central Mediterranean for the first time. Of the more than 150,000 people who have crossed the Central Mediterranean in precarious boats since January, 62% left from the beaches of Tunisia, according to Frontex, the EU border agency. This past summer — when all records were broken — 87% left from Tunisia. The rest departed from Libya, which was previously the main route.

The stoppage in the work by the Tunisian Coast Guard during the summer was the result of this, says Matteo Villa, senior researcher at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI). He has been analyzing the migration phenomenon between both countries for years. “Tunisia has been very active in trying to prevent irregular departures. If you look at the data, usually around half of those [who leave from its shores] are returned,” he says.

However, in October, the percentages were reversed: Libya was, once again, the main point of origin. The Tunisian Coast Guard detained 82% of the more than 10,000 people who tried to undertake the journey. In November, they detained 54%. The reactivation coincided with plans announced in a letter from Von der Leyen to the European Council, in which she announced a project to launch a new anti-human trafficking partnership with Tunisia before the end of 2023, with the support of the Europol and Eurojust agencies. The document also mentioned that the EU had provided “fuel to support anti-smuggling operations” and that Tunisian officials had been brought to Frontex headquarters in mid-September for a “familiarization visit.”

Additionally, the Tunisian police have adopted a more aggressive policy against traffickers, according to Romdhan Ben Amour, a migration researcher at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES). “They’ve applied a new policy of going after the barge-manufacturing workshops. The objective is to seal off the sea [to migrants].”

President Saied’s anger

The agreement didn’t get off to a good start. President Saied even returned 60 million euros ($66 million) transferred by the EU — the surplus of a fund initially allocated to the fight against COVID-19. This decision was a protest against the delay in the delivery of 150 million euros ($164 million) from the agreement signed in July, which promises over $1 billion in aid in total to stop irregular immigration to Europe and to support the financial recovery of the North African country.

Tunisia is going through a delicate economic situation, motivated, above all, by a high public deficit and a shortage of foreign currency. The September announcement from Brussels of an aid package worth 127 million euros ($139 million) led Saied to make a statement that he was opposed to receiving these funds, as he considered them to be a demeaning act of “charity.” Days later, the government of the North African country canceled the scheduled visit by the European Commission’s delegation.

A source familiar with the talks between Tunisia and the EU assures EL PAÍS that Saied’s administration “will receive the 150 million euros ($164 million) before the end of the year,” as was part of the commitment reached in the summer.

According to Ben Amour, the decrease in border surveillance during tensions with the EU is reminiscent of the strategies that other third countries — such as Turkey, Morocco or Libya — have employed in the past to achieve certain agreements or favors in exchange for border control. “You can see a relationship between the state of relations between Tunisia and the EU and the zeal of the Coast Guard,” he notes. Francis Ghiles – a senior researcher at the

Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB) – concurs with this assessment. “Tunisians are using migration as a means of pressure. Morocco did it three years ago so that Spain would change its position on the Sahara.”

An internal Frontex report also mentions this marked decrease in the arrival of clandestine vessels registered since October, attributing it to the work of the Tunisian Coast Guard. “The preventive activities of the Tunisian authorities have led to a considerable decrease in departures to Italy. Any relaxation of these measures would cause a strong rebound in the Tunisian migratory flow,” the Frontex document reads. EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Ylva Johansson also agreed with this position, during a press conference at the end of November.

For Francesco Pasetti — a senior researcher in migration at CIDOB — Saied’s reaction was the result of “arrogant” and “irresponsible” European policies towards a sovereign state. “The memorandum spoke of one billion euros, of which only 10% is dedicated to immigration control. 90% [of the funds are intended as] macroeconomic measures to heal the country’s economic situation, but so far, the only thing that has reached Tunisia is for immigration control. So, their position is understood when Saied says that they’re not the [security guards] of Europe. [The Tunisians] are expected to do whatever is a priority for Europe, while the situation in the country actually barely interests the EU.”

The agreement contemplates the granting of one billion euros in aid to the government in Tunis, although the transfer is linked to carrying out reforms promoted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). This is another element of discord with the EU, since Saied is reluctant to sign the loan agreement, due to a question over national sovereignty.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS