The signing of the Memorandum of Understanding between Tunisia and the European Union for a “comprehensive strategic partnership” to deal with the migration crisis is supposed to be a “model” in relations with North African countries, according to Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.
However, it remains stuck within old ways of thought, particularly the so-called “migration conditionality,” put forward in Europe in Sarkozy’s time and which by now has proven to be a complete failure.
Same with the trade-off between a small allowance of legal entries and a greater amenability to forced repatriation policies, which was at the heart of the agreements made in 1998 by Prime Minister Napolitano with Ben Ali’s Tunisia.
After the Association Agreement with the EU signed by Tunisia in 1995 — the first of the countries in the area — and which entered into force in 1998, the country has been benefiting from aid from the European Union through the so-called European Neighborhood and Partnership Instrument (ENPI), which provides assistance to countries covered by the European Neighborhood Policy.
For instance, the 2011-2013 National Indicative Programme allocated €240 million to Tunisia for political reforms for democracy, human rights, rule of law and good governance; the management of migratory flows and asylum applications; fighting organized crime, terrorism and money laundering; the development of conditions conducive to private investment; sustainable environmental, social and economic development; support for education, higher education and research; the strengthening of social programs; facilitations for the exchange of goods and services; and development of transport, the energy sector and the information society. Nowadays, we are still at the stage of such a generic statement of principles.
The “Meloni line on migration” is not new at all. One can compare the Memorandum of Understanding concluded on Monday between Tunisia and the European Union with the Khartoum Process and the Migration Compacts launched by Renzi in 2014 at the end of Operation Mare Nostrum; or with the provisions of the Memorandum of Understanding concluded by Gentiloni and Minniti with the government in Tripoli in February 2017, or the 2016 intergovernmental agreements between European states and Turkey.
There are no new binding practical commitments, only declarations of principle, which now, according to Meloni, “will have to be implemented.” Perhaps there is hope for further progress with the visit of the Tunisian Interior Minister to Rome, scheduled for the next few days, or with the summit of African heads of government that Meloni has organized for Sunday, July 23, also in Rome.
However, what is missing from this Memorandum of Understanding is something that was the main objective of the Italian government: the possibility of returning sub-Saharan migrants to Tunisia if they arrived in Italy after transiting that country, after “expedited procedures at the border.” In Tunisia, they have not yet forgotten the failed project – a true humanitarian disaster – that took place from 2011 to 2013, when the Choucha transit camp was established near Ben Guardane on the border with Libya, in collaboration with the UNHCR. President Saied made sure that the Memorandum has a clause saying that Tunisia will not become a platform for repatriations from the European Union; instead, he got a promise of support from the European Union for the collective rejections to neighboring countries that it is already conducting.
However, it’s hard to see how the European Union, including via Frontex, could participate with financial (if not straight-up operational) support in interceptions at sea or forced repatriation operations, in violation of the ban on collective rejections or the obligations to rescue and disembark in a safe port affirmed by EU Regulation No. 656 of 2014. Tunisia is not considered a “safe third country” by most EU member states today.
The common practices of the Tunisian police and the collective rejections in the desert on the borders with Libya and Algeria are contrary to the minimum standards of protection of fundamental human rights enshrined in the international conventions. Collaboration in search and rescue (SAR) activities with the Tunisian authorities cannot take the form of the outsourcing of further collective rejections – assuming, that is, that the Tunisian coast guard really wants to bring all sub-Saharan migrants fleeing to Europe back to the country’s shores.
What is still lacking is a true European search and rescue organization that would compel coastal states to save lives and ensure a safe port of call. Instead, greater “effectiveness” in repatriation policies, in the absence of consistent legal channels of entry into Europe and realistic possibilities for the evacuation of sub-Saharan migrants, and a more violent countering of attempts to cross the Mediterranean, will only foment more social conflict in Tunisia, as well as sabotage its relations with sub-Saharan countries such as the Ivory Coast and Gambia.