Symbolic image of a migrant on a bus.
Symbolic image of a migrant on a bus.

People deported to desert: Criticism of new agreement

Questionable European Migration Policy in Tunisia

While migrants in Tunisia come under increasing pressure and are abandoned in the desert, the EU and Tunisia are strengthening their migration cooperation. This is costing the EU a lot of money, and the question arises as to what role human rights still play in the process. Switzerland also has a responsibility.

Various media and non-governmental organisations have reported on the inhumane treatment of migrants in Tunisia in recent weeks. After violent attacks on people with dark skin in spring, more and more details and photos of deportations have become public. Authorities drove buses full of migrants from the Tunisian coast to the Libyan border and abandoned them in the middle of the desert. At 50 degrees Celsius, without equipment, hardly any water and food, including women and children. There were fatalities.

The violence and the attacks came as a surprise at first sight. The migration rate in Tunisian coastal cities has been high for years, many lived and worked in the region. However, the severe economic crisis in Tunisia has changed things. That migrants are declared scapegoats and blamed for the situation in times of crisis is unfortunately nothing new. The mood was fuelled by President Kais Saied himself, who accused migrants of violence and criminality in a speech and suspected a plot.

Europe's migration policy charm offensive

It is all the more astonishing that Europe is now deepening its cooperation on migration policy with this very ruler. On the one hand, this has to do with the fact that Tunisia has become an increasingly important transit country on the way to Europe in recent years. In 2023, for the first time, more refugees departed from Tunisia for Italy than from Libya.

On the other hand, in Europe's migration policy, the big project, the new EU Asylum and Migration Pact, has just cleared an important hurdle. While there are still differences on issues such as the distribution of refugees within Europe, there is agreement on one main concern: the prevention of irregular migration.This is to be done by securing the external border, through deterrence and better cooperation with so-called safe third countries. People should not only be detained, rejected asylum seekers should also be able to be sent back to such safe third countries.

The fact that the EU has just now concluded a migration agreement with Tunisia must therefore be understood against the background of the negotiations within the organisation. However, the fact that this was signed after the president's inflammatory speech, after the riots against migrants in Tunisian cities and parallel to the shocking deaths after deportations to the desert must give pause for thought. The question arises as to how far the EU is willing to go in its efforts to avert migration and where it draws red lines - especially when it operates with such promising as well as dangerous terms as «safe third countries».

Migration partnership with Switzerland as a potential

As part of the Schengen area, Switzerland is involved in European migration policy. However, Tunisia has long been a priority country in Swiss foreign migration policy. The two countries have maintained a migration partnership since 2012.

Partnerships of this kind are always praised for their broad scope and the fact that both the exchange and the choice of topics take place on an equal footing. However, Switzerland was also concerned with a domestic policy issue when it signed the agreement: the migration partnership was intended to facilitate the repatriation of rejected Tunisian asylum seekers.

Now is the chance to show that such a migration partnership can also achieve something beyond repatriations and financial aid. Switzerland must use every opportunity to work within the framework of its close partnership for the urgently needed better protection of migrants in Tunisia.

Written by Michael Egli, Head of Migration Policy, Caritas Switzerland

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Header image: Symbolic image of a migrant on a bus. © Lefteris Partsalis/Caritas Switzerland