In Tunisia, the EU Migration Pact is received with diplomatic silence from politicians, apathy from the Tunisian authorities and powerless indignation from the civil society. This sobering pact only confirms once again for many Tunisians that the EU migration policy is a one-way affair.
This commentary is part of our dossier on the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.
The “New Pact on Migration and Asylum” (hereafter the Pact) does not add anything new to what Tunisia has not already learned from bilateral agreements with European Member States. The Pact’s objectives of fighting irregular migration, speeding up return procedures or promoting safe and legal access routes for people in need of protection are in fact constant political slogans brought up during every official visit of European heads of state to Tunisia.
Yet, Tunisia will be one of the most affected countries by the migration policies proposed by the European Commission. At the external borders, the Pact aims at beefing up the return mechanism, in which third countries such as Tunisia play a crucial role. The recently amended Schengen code (2019) seems to be the main instrument of EU migration diplomacy intended on getting third countries to cooperate and to conclude readmission agreement.
Silence from Tunisian authorities
This being said, it is puzzling that the Tunisian official authorities keep mum. No official statement was released by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs or else by the Presidency of the Republic, let alone by the Tunisian diplomatic representation in Brussels concerning the Pact. Admittedly, the ongoing institutional cacophony between the Tunisian Presidency and the Tunisian Parliament seems to prevent the authorities from dedicating to the Pact the importance it deserves.
And yet, in light of the recent developments the Pact should capture the attention of the Tunisian authorities. On August 31st, Tunisian nationals were ranking high on the list of refugees landing on the Italian coast (41.2% or 7,961 people), according to a UNHCR report. The often agreement in simplified form related to return between Tunisia, on the one hand and Germany and Italy, on the other hand have resulted in the return of dozens of Tunisians. According to the Italian newspaper La Repubblica (21/09/2020), the agreement between Italy and Tunisia provides for the readmission of some 600 Tunisians per month. On the other hand, the cases of migrants and refugees that are being denied access to the EU and are instead disembarked on the Tunisian coasts deserve a clear position from the Tunisian authorities.
If there will be any reaction to the Pact at all, the Tunisian response will most probably align with the country’s past behaviour. Official refusal but de facto cooperation. If necessary, and as recommended in the Pact, “trans-governmental” arrangements, outside the scope of the Tunisian parliament, will be used by the EU to ensure the cooperation from the Tunisian side. The Tunisian parliament, for its part, has not released any positions on such a potential bypassing. Knowing that the parliament is not even involved in the negotiations of the mobility partnership with the EU, we should not be surprised by its silence either.
Civil society response
The only stakeholder in Tunisia that has reacted to the Pact is as so often the Tunisian civil society, even if this reaction has been very gingerly. The Forum Tunisien pour les droits économiques et sociaux (FTDES) said that “the Pact is no real policy but rather a package of procedures to improve the control of its external boarders and shift to a constant migration crisis management.” In addition, EuroMed Rights reacted on the very day the Pact was published, considering that “with this plan, the EU becomes a de facto “champion of the return journey” for migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean”.
These reactions underscore that the Pact is not seen as a renewal of the EU's migration policy. The Pact is a mere reminder that the EU continues to see migration as a risk and not as an opportunity. Even if there are some positive elements (decriminalisation of sea rescue, support to vulnerable people, etc.), a lot of work remains to be done. The Pact characterises the lack of imagination of the EU as to how to think migration as a driver of sustainable and solidarity-based development. While insisting on the need to “scout” talents from third countries in order to solve the problems the EU is facing, the Pact once again confirms that it is almost a one-way affair.