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Alessandra Bajec

Italy pushes for repatriation and deterrence to cut down on Tunisian migrants

SOS Mediterranee NGO and MSF members perform a rescue drill between Lampedusa and Tunisia [Getty]

Date of publication: 15 October, 2018

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In line with the EU's long-standing border externalisation policy, the Italian government is demanding more cooperation from Tunisia to bring migration numbers down.
The recent visit of Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini in Tunisia, expected to centre around cooperation talks on migration, reiterated Italy's emergency and security-oriented policies. 

The talks essentially resulted in Salvini urging local authorities to step up efforts to return Tunisians who are in Italy illegally to their home country, and block illicit migrants from entering.

The visit came days after the approval by the Italian Council of Ministers of the new decree on migration, which would see a dramatic reduction of the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and set measures vowing to limit clandestine immigration.

The question of stemming migration flows through the Mediterranean has been high on the agenda of Italy's far-right deputy prime minister. But while the new populist government in Rome has given ample evidence of its hard line on immigration, there is nothing new in the externalisation of the Italian and European policies on migration, whose logic is to shift the responsibility to halt irregular migrants from the EU to the countries of origin.

Europe, broadly speaking, has resolutely pursued a policy of border externalisation for the past two decades at least.

Tunisia would want to protect the rights of its citizens, not have them treated like criminals or subjected to arbitrary measures of detention and deportation

"This policy of dealing with third countries and transferring border management there is something the EU has been consistently doing for about 25 years," remarked Andrew Geddes, Chair in Migration Studies and Director of the Migration Policy Centre (MPC) at the European University Institute.

Since 2015, when the number of migrants to Europe surged to over one million, the EU partnered with countries in the Middle East and Africa to prevent migrants from reaching Europe by supporting these countries economically and politically, and providing them with border management equipment.

"Migration in Europe has become a political winning issue, a file that is to be handled with a tough stance amid much migrant phobia being created. The bigger the number of migrants, the more European governments turn right, the more pressure European countries put on North African countries to serve as platforms for sorting migrants," argued Messaoud Romdhani, President of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

Read also: Marginalisation driving Tunisians to migrant boats

The Italian interior minister travelled to Tunis seeking full cooperation from Tunisian authorities with the objective of decreasing arrivals by sea in the interest of Italy and Europe at large. The FTDES president suggested that Salvini approached Tunisia with the intent to "delegate the role of coastguard" on Europe's behalf.

His Tunisian counterpart, Hichem Fourati, reportedly said Tunisian authorities were ready to accept returns of confirmed Tunisian citizens.

The number of Tunisian migrants attempting to enter Europe by boat have soared in the last year. As of August 31, some 3,729 Tunisian migrants arrived to Italy by sea compared to 1,357 recorded during the same period of 2017, based on figures from UNHCR and IOM. Tunisia currently accounts for the highest number of migrant arrivals in Italy.

That said, the overall migration numbers have drastically gone down and are now back to pre-2015 levels. More than 150,000 people arrived in Italy in 2015; the number recorded at the end of August was less than 21,000.

Still, Italy appears worried by the increase in Tunisians reaching its coasts.

"Italy's concerns are understandable. What is not justified is acting in a 'crisis mode' when it's not an emergency," debated Tasnim Abderrahim, Junior Policy Officer in the African Institutions Programme and the Migration Programme at the European Centre for Development Policy Management (ECDPM).

"But because of that, Tunisia has been put under a lot of pressure in committing to take irregular migrants back home."

Salvini's first official trip in Tunis took place in a tense climate following the defamatory comments made by the interior minister earlier in the summer when he accused the North African country of sending its "convicts" in migrant boats across the Mediterranean.

The Tunisian government called in the Italian ambassador in response, while stating that Salvini's remarks "do not reflect the cooperation between the two countries in the management of immigration".

As 'fortress Europe' shuts its doors and refuses to rescue migrants at sea, we expect more boat tragedies with desperate youth continuing to brave the Mediterranean

Italy and Tunisia have no shortage of cooperation in migration. They have various mechanisms of coordination in border security and return of irregular migrants present in the EU.

"I'm sure the Italian government knows Tunisia is one of its best partners in migration management. It cannot afford losing its cooperation," the ECDPM policy officer commented.

Making reference to Rome's heavy-handed security approach, Professor Geddes articulated that subjecting Tunisian nationals to Italy's arbitrary powers would not play well in Tunisian domestic politics, nor build the cooperation that Salvini demands in order to reduce the migration flows.

"Tunisia would want to protect the rights of its citizens, not have them treated like criminals or subjected to arbitrary measures of detention and deportation," the professor said.

"Tunisia doesn't see itself as a servant state that performs the wishes of the EU," he added.

The MPC director opined that any agreement would have to involve offering an incentive in exchange for more cooperation from Tunis to stop migration to Europe. That could involve either "financial compensation" for Tunisia to assist in migration, alternatively opening of "regular pathways" for Tunisian migrants to enter Italy or the EU in his view.

Although Italian government officials were hoping to achieve an increase in repatriations – currently 80 per week – Rome only obtained Tunisia's pledge to boost bilateral agreements with Italy during Salvini's trip.

There is enough resistance in the Tunisian public to increasing the repatriation quota. The government, for its part, would rather invest more efforts in border controls.

Abderrahim explained that the procedure for returns requires first the Tunisian authorities to identify Tunisian migrants illegally staying in Italy, then issue travel documents before they can be brought back to their homeland. That can take some time.

"Italy is keen on finding some workable arrangement with Tunisia to make this process faster and more efficient from an Italian perspective," she hinted.

The policy officer, however, predicted that it is more likely that Tunisia and Italy will strengthen cooperation on border security management.

For Romdhani, Italy wishes it could "pass its migration burden" onto a third country like Tunisia to handle it.

Similarly, most EU states seem ready to deal with third countries to contain migration without doing much to protect the rights of migrants in those places. Many question whether such a border externalisation policy is upholding human rights.

Despite there have been prior attempts by Europe to set up regional hotspots across the Mediterranean, Tunisia as well as Morocco and Algeria have so far refused to cooperate.

"European member states are effectively asking third countries to have on their territory protracted refugee situations. Why would they accept that?" Geddes questioned.

"Proposals such as making North Africa some kind of buffer zone, or creating camps there to keep migrants from moving ahead towards Europe are not something these countries are willing to cooperate on," Abderrahim emphasised.

The FTDES head is not optimistic about Europe's migration response judging from the EU's severe security-focused policy and the alarming death rate in the Mediterranean. Even though unauthorised migration on the route has fallen sharply since 2015, the sea journey between North Africa and Italy is now deadlier.

According to the latest UN data, one in five migrants died or disappeared on the Central Mediterranean route last month. In September, about eight people died or went missing along the journey daily, a study released by Italian think tank ISPI revealed.

"As 'fortress Europe' shuts its doors and refuses to rescue migrants at sea, we expect more boat tragedies with desperate youth continuing to brave the Mediterranean," Romdhani concluded.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis. 

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec

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