Door to Tunisia wide open for West Africans, and the EU fails to act
Tunisia must curtail the uncontrolled flow of migrants from West Africa into its own country.
Despite a fierce debate in the European Parliament on the eve of the yearly State of the Union, Ursula von der Leyen defended the recent Tunisia deal in her speech as a necessary tool to reduce migration and stimulate cooperation beyond the European Union. In the last couple of weeks however, numerous media have stated that the infamous deal has failed miserably while the ink is barely dry. This conclusion was justified by the huge numbers of migrants that travelled from Tunisia to Italy this summer, despite the conclusion of the deal in July. But these reports failed to pinpoint the real reason why tens of thousands of migrants are at all able to risk their lives making the dangerous crossing. While much was written about the dire economic situation in Tunisia, the human traffickers and the hostile attitude towards African migrants, the fact that it is very easy for West African migrants to enter Tunisia wasn’t mentioned anywhere. Which is of course a key part of the story. The gate to Tunisia, and hence to Europe, is wide open, and precisely on this point the EU failed to make any kind of agreement with the Tunisian government. If the EU intends to conclude further migration deals with other African countries, then the deal with Tunisia sets a very poor example, as Tunisian president Kais Saied has made no commitments to counter the flow of irregular migration to Europe. While that was the overriding goal of the agreements made between the President of the European Commission Von der Leyen, the Italian and Dutch prime ministers Meloni and Rutte, and the Tunisian government.
For many years, not more than two thousand migrants per year travelled from Tunisia to Italy. Why migrants from West African countries preferred the route via Libya was actually hard to understand. After all, the journey through the desert was hazardous, the chances of ending up in a Libyan detention centre were very real, and human traffickers had to be paid thousands of dollars for the dangerous sea crossing. Tunisia offered an alternative route but was barely used, also because there were no trafficking networks operating there. So what’s going on?
Residents of West African countries do not need a visa to visit Tunisia. Until recently this applied for visits of up to 90 days, but this was extended in spring of this year to 180 days. This has made the journey from say Ivory Coast to Tunisia relatively easy. The carrier Tunisair flies to and from numerous destinations in West Africa, and a return ticket costs around 800 euros. Upon arrival at Tunis-Carthage International Airport, your passport is stamped without any questions as to the purpose of your trip. You can then proceed directly into the arms of human traffickers, or travel onwards to southern Tunisia to arrange a crossing to Lampedusa. This Italian island is less than 200 kilometres from the Tunisian port town of Sfax, from where most of the boats set sail. It is the shortest connection to Europe, and compared to routes via Libya, certainly not the most expensive or dangerous.
The large-scale migration from West Africa to Tunisia must be controlled first
Until the end of August, 225,000 migrants illegally entered Europe. One in three departed from Tunisia. This underlines the importance of making effective agreements about migration with the Tunisian government. The total number departing from Tunisia comes to around 75,000, with most coming from West African countries such as Ivory Coast and Guinea. These migrants are mainly motivated by economic reasons. Around 10,000 migrants are Tunisian nationals, which means that the harsh socio-economic situation in Tunisia has not yet sparked an exodus towards Europe, although the numbers are increasing. But the principal focus has to be on countering irregular migration from West African countries.
If this is indeed the goal, then it is essential to make clear agreements to that end with the Tunisian government. It will have to change its visa policy and only grant entry to residents of West African countries who are travelling to Tunisia for work or study. Without such changes there can be no effective border control, and hence no way to stem the tide. It is clear that the Tunisian authorities currently lack the means to properly guard the country’s maritime borders, and the results of better equipment and closer collaboration between the Tunisian coastguard and the EU can take several years to materialise – as the Italian government has found out, in its collaboration with the Libyan coastguard.
The reports about migrants being dumped across the border with Libya without food or water are heart-wrenching. The rising tensions between migrants and the Tunisian population are also a cause for concern. However, this situation is due in part to the large-scale uncontrolled influx of migrants from West Africa, with their (unfounded) hope of a better life in Europe. If we truly wish to reduce the tensions in Tunisia and the mounting pressure on Europe’s asylum system, then the young populations of both West African countries and Tunisia must be given a better outlook, and the irregular migration must be stemmed effectively. Which can be achieved by combining visa measures with greater opportunities for legal migration. The failure to do so is at the expense of the thousands of people who needlessly take all kinds of risks to travel to Europe. And that is something we all wish to prevent.
A translation of this op-ed was previously published in the Dutch newspaper NRC on 11 september 2023.