Tunisia's migration policy: the ambiguous consequences of democratization


In Tunisia, the first decade of democratization did not lead to an expansion of migrant rights. Despite initial attempts to replace the restrictive policies inherited from the authoritarian regime of Ben Ali, domestic and international forces ultimately put breaks on liberal migration reform.


After half a century of authoritarian rule, Tunisia embarked on a democratic transition process in January 2011. From the outset, migration and revolution were intrinsically linked: the emigration of young Tunisians skyrocketed in early 2011 as Tunisia's security apparatus and border controls fell apart, with 28,000 Tunisians arriving at Italy's shores compared to around 1,700 yearly over the 2000-2010 period.[1] At the same time, several hundred thousand migrant workers and Libyan families crossed into south-eastern Tunisia because of the civil war in neighbouring Libya, a dynamic that has since continued at a smaller scale.

Democratization has not only affected migration dynamics, but also fundamentally reframed how migration policy was debated and decided upon in Tunisia. In the aftermath of the revolution, 18 parliamentary seats were attributed to Tunisian emigrants and a State Secretary for Migration and Tunisians Abroad (SEMTE) was created to coordinate and steer Tunisia's policy towards immigration and emigration. Emergency measures were taken to address the situation of incoming migrants and refugees in Southern Tunisia, and discussions emerged on the need to revamp the country's securitized immigration law and elaborate an asylum law. In parallel, increased political freedoms prompted civil activism on an unprecedented scale.[2] In this context, the political treatment of migrants, marginalized and rights-deprived under Ben Ali, was a critical test for the young democracy and its human rights ideals.

Yet, despite this initial dynamism, claims for a more rights-based polity did ultimately not spill over into more rights for migrants. Although emigration and diaspora politics have stayed central to Tunisia's development agenda, little has changed for Tunisian emigrants since 2011. Their demands for more rights continue to clash with European security interests to reduce immigration and increase returns. In addition, the migration-terrorism nexus present in both Tunisian and European discourses has further reinforced security approaches on both sides of the Mediterranean.[3]

On immigration, initial reform efforts such as the elaboration of a draft law on asylum and a rights-based national migration strategy were cut short in 2013 by a series of political assassinations, growing tensions in neighbouring Libya and continued economic struggles.[4] As a result, policymakers have depoliticized immigration and sidelined it from the political agenda. Those immigration policy changes that have been implemented remained informal or limited to specific migrant groups.[5]

Ultimately, the core of Tunisia's immigration regime inherited from the authoritarian era – the restrictive rules on entry and stay – remains untouched. What explains the persistence of securitized approaches towards migration in Tunisia’s context of democratization?

The importance of legitimizing public policies                    

First of all, the democratic transition fundamentally reshaped the foundations of political legitimacy in Tunisia. Under Ben Ali, migration policy was primarily a tool to bolster the authoritarian regime by guaranteeing international support and stepping up population surveillance.[6] After 2011, Tunisian political leaders needed to legitimize decisions in front of an electorate. However, democratic legitimization has played out differently for emigration, where it required navigating between clashing domestic and international demands, than for immigration, where it meant considering divergent popular views.

The popular mandate on emigration was clear for Tunisian policymakers: safeguarding and expanding emigrants’ rights. Indeed, during demonstrations in January 2011, the rights to emigrate and to participate in the polity from abroad were core demands of the revolution.[7] Also, the return of leftist and Islamist political figures from exile after 2011 integrated migrant experiences into the Tunisian government and set emigrants' rights on top of the political agenda. However, this popular mandate clashes with Europe's continuous pressures for the externalization and securitization of migration.[8] Thus, in democratizing Tunisia, policymakers are now caught between claims of an increasingly self-confident civil society and relentless international demands for restriction. This impasse between domestic and external interests has made it difficult for Tunisian governments over the last decade to live up to popular demands and expand emigrants' rights in practice.

In contrast to emigration, Tunisian decision-makers are confronted with contradictory popular claims on immigration: On the one hand, democratization created space for civil society activism and allowed migrants who felt discriminated to demand equality.[9] Simultaneously, democratization freed up previously repressed racist sentiments in the public sphere and enabled Tunisians who felt endangered by diversity to voice their fears.[10] Given these contradictory demands, political leaders deliberately sidelined immigration from the political agenda. Instead of being seen as a contribution to democracy, pro-migrant civil society activism was cast as unpatriotic and as risking further societal polarization.[11] In the eyes of many, the Tunisian government should first take care of its own citizens and the pressing economic and security questions.  

Only on two issues – human trafficking and racial discrimination – has civil society activism been successful in enshrining more protections through the laws adopted respectively in August 2016 and October 2018. Yet, while these laws were welcome by civil society actors and international observers, they only affected migrant rights at the fringe and left the core of Tunisia's immigration regime largely unchanged.

Institutional dynamics within the Tunisian state

The democratic transition also had ambiguous consequences for dynamics within the Tunisian state. Under Ben Ali, the state's involvement in migration was limited to the Interior Ministry's security approach and negotiations between the Foreign Affairs Ministry and European countries; inter-institutional cooperation was almost nonexistent. The end of authoritarianism meant that the politics of isolation broke down: high-level civil servants reclaimed political initiative, and inter-institutional dialogue was attempted anew. Democratization thus led to more inclusive and transparent policy processes. However,  institutional actors also increasingly gained awareness of their 'power to say no', which ultimately reinforced the stalemate around migration reform.

Indeed, more inclusive policy processes created frictions between different Tunisian ministries. In particular, the institutionalization of the migration dossier after 2011 has led to a conflict between the Social and Foreign Affairs Ministries around the tutelage of the State Secretary for Migration (SEMTE). Created in 2011, the SEMTE was transferred in August 2016 from Social Affairs to Foreign Affairs in response to Parliamentarians representing Tunisians Residing Abroad, triggering open discontent from the Social Affairs Ministry. With the September 2017 governmental change, the SEMTE returned to the Social Affairs Ministry. This conflict has jeopardized cooperation with other actors – institutional and societal – which has obstructed reform processes such as elaborating an asylum law or politically validating the national migration strategy.

More generally, democratization made Tunisian civil servants aware of their powers – to discuss, disagree, and formulate ideas. In this context, the lacking inter-institutional coordination by the SEMTE has opened up space for other ministries to pursue their own interests on migration. The multiplication of actors engaged on migration within the Tunisian state and the increased bureaucratic activism have thus made policymaking more incoherent and dependent on individual or institutional agendas. Rather than triggering reforms, democratization has thus added a new layer of complexity in the administrative architecture of the Tunisian state.

The varying influence of external actors                                         

Lastly, democratization also affected the role and leverage of international organizations (IOs) and diplomatic actors. Under the regime of Ben Ali, all interactions with IOs or diplomatic partners were under tight state surveillance. The revolution has opened up the Tunisian state apparatus and civil society to external cooperation. After 2011, international funding and capacity building activities by IOs such as UNHCR or IOM have burgeoned; and their daily interactions with Tunisian institutions and CSOs multiplied. Furthermore, UNHCR continues to be in charge of the entire asylum determination process because a national legal framework is still lacking.

Yet, while the democratic transition opened up space for external actors, it did not automatically increase their weight on domestic decision-making. Although external actors have successfully set the issue of immigration on the Tunisian governmental agenda, attempts to impose specific frames have also been met by open or subtle resistances from Tunisian state actors – at the level of policy development and policy practice.[12] Thus, foreign expertise turned out to be a double-edged sword in the context of democratization: On the one hand, it strengthens civil society lobbying of Tunisian institutions regarding immigrants' rights. On the other hand, it also increases Tunisia's political reticence towards externally imposed migration control agendas.

In fact, relations between external actors, CSOs and Tunisia's administration vary according to the issue at stake: On immigration, civil society and international actors tend to join forces to lobby state institutions for progressive reforms. IOs attempt to get civil society on board to advocate state institutions to back up their requests with domestic legitimacy.  For instance, in the early years after the revolution, the presence of CSOs at meetings between IOs and state institutions increased the likelihood that public actors would recognize the need to address immigration as a topic in Tunisian public life. Vice-versa, Tunisian CSOs rely on their international networks to exercise transnational pressure on national political actors. This has been particularly successful in their advocacy against human trafficking and racial discrimination.  

On emigration, however, civil society and Tunisian state institutions join forces to resist international actors' pressures. In particular, Tunisia's Foreign Affairs Ministry has welcomed civil society criticism of EU migration policies to back up Tunisia's refusal of EU migration control demands. Ultimately, the democratic character of post-2011 Tunisia allows the government to better face European pressures by highlighting the need to consider civil society and popular opinion. Indeed, while cooperation with the European Union is still economically vital for Tunisia, it is no longer critical for the government's political stability and legitimation.


The 2011 revolution and subsequent democratic transition have shifted the fundamentals of Tunisian political life. Yet, despite newly gained freedoms and more transparent policy processes, Tunisia's securitized migration policies have remained largely unchanged in the first decade of democratization. What explains this?

First, the need to democratically legitimize policies played out differently for emigration and immigration, requiring political leaders to accommodate divergent views rather than adhering to principles of equality and freedom. Second, more inclusive policymaking triggered contradictory dynamics within the Tunisian state, leading to more transparency and engagement but also to more inter-institutional conflict. This has ultimately reinforced policy stalemate on migration. Third, democratization did not reduce external demands for migration control but instead gave rise to shifting coalitions between state, civil society and international actors on immigration or emigration. In particular, it triggered equivocal transnational dynamics, as Europe's political goal to reduce migration to its southern borders created pressures on Tunisia to simultaneously restrict the rights of Tunisian emigrants and expand the rights of immigrants in Tunisia.

Despite the dynamism of Tunisian civil society and some initial institutional efforts, there were thus both domestic and international forces that put breaks on reforming Tunisia's security-driven migration policy. Ultimately, liberal migration reform seems to have failed for two reasons: because the security priorities of Tunisia's Interior Ministry and of European external actors have not been fundamentally affected by the democratic transition and, regarding immigration, because there is no clear majority within Tunisian society to politicize the issue through a human rights lens. From this perspective, the persistence of securitarian migration policies might suggest that there has not been a complete regime transition in Tunisia regarding its migration and border regime.


This analysis is a summary of the author's article "Tunisia’s migration politics throughout the 2011 revolution: Revisiting the democratisation - migrant rights nexus" published in Third World Quarterly (2021).


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[3] Cassarino, Jean-Pierre. 2018. "Le gouvernement des migrations en Tunisie : vers un nouveau paradigme?" Pp. 295-309 in Tunisie : une démocratisation au-dessus de tout soupçon?, edited by Amin Allal et Vincent Geisser. Paris: CNRS Éditions ; Lixi, Luca. 2018. "After Revolution, Tunisian Migration Governance Has Changed. Has EU Policy?" Migration Information Source. Washington: Migration Policy Institute.

[4] Cassarini, Camille. 2020. "L'immigration subsaharienne en Tunisie: De la reconnaissance d'un fait social à la création d'un enjeu gestionnaire." Migrations Société 179(1):43-57 ; FTDES et Migreurop. 2020. "Politiques du non-accueil en Tunisie: Des acteurs humanitaires au service des politiques sécuritaires européennes." Tunis: Forum Tunisien pour les Droits Economiques et Sociaux et Migreurop ; Geisser, Vincent. 2019. "Tunisie, des migrants subsahariens toujours exclus du rêve démocratique." Migrations Société 177(3):3-18.

[5] Natter, Katharina. 2021. "Ad-hocratic immigration governance: how states secure their power over immigration through intentional ambiguity." Territory, Politics, Governance.

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[7] Giusa, Caterina. 2018. "« On a fait la révolution pour être libres. Libres de partir » : Les départs des harragas de la Tunisie en révolution." Mouvements 93:99-106.

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[9] Roman 2019 ; Pouessel, Stéphanie. 2012. "Les marges renaissantes : Amazigh, juif, Noir. Ce que la révolution a changé dans ce “petit pays homogène par excellence” qu’est la Tunisie." L’Année du Maghreb 8:143-60.

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[11] Zemni, Sami. 2016. "From Revolution to Tunisianité: Who is the Tunisian People? Creating Hegemony through Compromise." Middle East Law and Governance 8(2-3):131-50.

[12] Garelli et Tazzioli 2017.