On July 16, 2023, Tunisia and the European Union (EU) signed the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to implement the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Package, which covers five pillars: strengthening trade and investment, macro-economic stability, green energy transition, migration, and people-to-people contacts.[i] The deal saw EU’s pledge of 1 billion Euros in economic aid to Tunisia to tackle the economic crisis, stem “irregular”[ii] migration, and support green transition.
President Kais Saied inherited an ailing economy and an unstable political system when he became the President of Tunisia in 2019. In 2023, the economic crisis aggravated after President Saied rejected the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) $1.9 billion loan, as it required the Tunisian government to cut food and energy subsidies, which he feared could lead to political unrest. Besides, Tunisia is also witnessing the rise of the influx of migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, which is creating tensions between migrants and the local population, leading to violence. According to President Saied, “Undocumented migration from Sub-Saharan African countries was aimed at changing Tunisia’s demographic composition and was contributing to poverty and economic issues.”[iii]
Tunisia is part of the Central Mediterranean route for the migrants to head to Italy, as then onwards to other European countries. According to Frontex[iv], the Central Mediterranean Sea is the top migratory route for Africans to enter Europe.[v] In recent months, thousands of African refugees have flocked to the coastal city of Sfax in Tunisia. Tunisian Interior Ministry reported that there are currently 80,000 undocumented migrants in Tunisia, concentrated along the coast.[vi] For the EU, the Package will serve to contain irregular migration in Europe, combat human trafficking, and strengthen border security. It is important to note that the MoU is still a declaration of political intentions. It will only be realised when individual EU Member States approve it.
Comprehensive Strategic Partnership Package (CSP)
Under the ‘comprehensive strategic partnership,’ the EU will provide economic aid to help Tunisia to deal with crippling inflation and facing the prospect of a major debt crisis. The package will support macroeconomic stability, trade and investment, green transition, and the education sector in Tunisia. The aid also includes a plan to boost exchange of students and to modernise schools.[vii] On its part, Tunisia will prevent the “irregular” migrants from using its territory to enter Europe.
Since the beginning of 2023, the EU has struggled to cope, with 75,000 migrants leaving African countries to reach Italy and Malta. Tunisia has become the main departure point for migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Earlier, the migrants had used Libya as a point to cross the sea to reach Europe. Now, they travel through Tunisia to enter Europe because the Libyan Coast Guards, bankrolled by the EU, have intensified the control over the “irregular” migration activities through repressive measures, which has resulted in the deportation of thousands of migrants to their countries of origin.[viii] The Package is significant for Tunisia because it consists of various measures including search and rescue operations, border management, and provisions for return migration to contain irregular migration. In this context, the Package not only prevents irregular migrants from reaching Europe but also facilitates the return of migrants from Tunisia to their origin countries.
Responses to the CSP Package
The Human Rights bodies and the organizations dealing with the rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea have condemned the deal, calling it “dangerous,” and have questioned the ways in which it would protect the vulnerable.[ix] The Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Vincent Cochetel who deals with the migration issue in the Mediterranean Sea, expressed concern about the Package, stating that, “There is no reference in the agreement to legal pathways for non-Tunisian migrants.”[x] Some Say that this Package ignores the idea of ‘non-refoulement’[xi] in which migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers cannot be sent to their home country from where they face threats to their lives. Following the EU-Tunisia deal, Tunisia signed an agreement with Libya in August 2023 for ‘shared responsibility’ providing shelter to about 300 migrants stranded at their border. Tunisia will take charge of a group of 76 men, 42 women, and eight children, while Libya will take charge of the remaining 150 migrants.[xii] However, the African countries, including Libya, did not make a statement on the EU-Tunisia migration deal.
Tunisia is going through an economic crisis and political instability. Increasing numbers of Tunisians are also trying to leave the country to go to Europe. The country needs international support to tackle its economic crisis and the increasing resentment among the common citizens against the Tunisian government. The ‘Comprehensive Strategic Partnership’ Package will impact African mobility but can assuage the economic crisis in Tunisia so that the resentment among the masses against the Tunisian government can be contained. For the EU, the Package will help contain the human traffickers and smuggler networks that used Libya and Tunisia to send irregular migrants to Europe.
*Dr. Arshad, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[ii] It means those migrants who are moving in breach of rules.
[iv]Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, supports EU Member States and Schengen-associated countries in the management of the EU’s external borders and the fight against cross-border crime.
[ix]EU/Tunisia: Agreement on migration ‘makes EU complicit’ in abuses against asylum seekers, refugees and migrants,” Amnesty International, July 17, 2023, accessed https://shorturl.at/psIPX, August 21, 2023
[xi] This concept is part of the 1951 Refugee Convention of the UN.