Under pressure, Tunisia accepts "unusual deportations"

With the arrival of thousands of Tunisian refugees in Italy, the Italian government is putting increased pressure on Tunisia and wants to extend its deportation deal with the small country. A Tunisian NGO is calling for transparency. Sofian Philip Naceur reports from Tunis

By Sofian Philip Naceur

Frustration and lack of prospects have put down deep roots in Tunisian society, fed by an increasingly serious economic crisis, social inequality and disillusionment with Tunisia’s political class, which in the ten years since the 2011 revolution has not even begun to fulfil hopes of real social change in the country.

The coronavirus pandemic has left the country’s tourism sector – so vital to the survival of hundreds of thousands of Tunisians – on the brink of collapse, and this is providing an additional catalyst for the social imbalance, with dramatic consequences. Since the countrywide lockdown was lifted at the end of May, an increasing number of Tunisians have come to see escape to Italy as their only chance of a better future.

It is true that Tunisians have been making the risky crossing from their country’s coast to the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily just a few kilometres away for years. But since the start of this year, the idea of fleeing from a hopeless existence (an escape that in Tunisia is often just called harga, Arabic for burning, and refers to the burning of the border) has grown far more attractive.

41.2 percent of the 23,306 irregular migrants who have arrived in Italy since January are Tunisian citizens (as of 28 September 2020). During the whole of 2019, the Italian authorities counted only around 2,600 irregular arrivals by Tunisian migrants. Tunisia has now become far and away the most significant country of origin for refugees arriving in Italy.

Tunisia under pressure

The government in Rome therefore increased its pressure on Tunisia significantly in the spring of this year, repeatedly calling on the authorities there to take more consistent action against boats leaving the Tunisian coast, and to accept a higher number of deportees. Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi di Maio, even overtly threatened Tunisia with the prospect of blocking 6.5 million euros of development aid that had already been promised, if the country did not finally come round and co-operate more closely on migration control.

North African refugees following their arrival in Italy (photo: picture-alliance/dpa
Rigorose Abschiebungen statt Aufnahme: Italien und Tunesien hatten sich im September auf eine Verdoppelung der Zahl der Rückführungen nach Tunesien geeinigt. Bis zu 600 tunesische Migranten soll das nordafrikanische Land pro Monat zurücknehmen, so die italienische Innenministerin Luciana Lamorgese. Hintergrund ist der starke Anstieg der Zahl der Flüchtlingsboote aus Tunesien mit einem hohen Anteil tunesischer Migranten, die in den vergangenen Wochen Lampedusa erreichten. Die italienische Insel liegt im südlichen Mittelmeer vor der tunesischen Küste. Seit Jahresbeginn erreichten laut Innenministerium 21.000 Bootsflüchtlinge Italien, darunter 9.000 Tunesier.

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The Tunisian coastguard has, however, stopped more migrant boats this year than ever before. Between January and August, they prevented 8,516 people from making the crossing to Italy, 7,890 of whom were Tunisian citizens. In the first eight months of 2018, according to the Tunisian human rights organisation FTDES (Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, a group that evaluates the position of the Tunisian authorities on various issues and provides monthly statistics on irregular emigration) that number was 3,534, and over the same period in 2019 it was only 2,338.

Green light for "unusual returns"

All the same, the pressure from Rome seems to be having an effect. At the end of September, the Italian daily newspapers La Repubblica and Il Foglio reported that the deportation agreement between Italy and Tunisia, which has been in place since 2011, is to be extended – at least on a temporary basis.

According to both papers, Tunisia’s new prime minister, Hishem Mechichi (who only took office in September and was acting in his former position as interior minister), came to an agreement with Italy’s minister of the interior, Luciana Lamorgese, during visits to Tunis in July and August 2020, that from October irregular Tunisian migrants arriving in Italy would be subject to "unusual returns".

Up until now, the 2011 agreement allowed Italy to deport up to 80 Tunisian migrants per week, on two flights from Palermo in Sicily to Enfidha in northern Tunisia. La Repubblica claims that in future, there might be up to 600 such returns per month. That would allow Italy to deport almost double the current number of Tunisians every month.

But the specific details of the new agreement are not yet known. Neither the Tunisian foreign ministry nor the Italian embassy in Tunis has responded to requests for a reaction to the reports. There has still been no official confirmation of the new agreement. And so it also remains unclear how many people really could be deported as part of these "unusual returns", or indeed how long the new agreement might be in place for.

Meanwhile, there is some doubt as to whether the precise contents of the deal will ever be made public. Even the 2011 agreement on migration co-operation, under which Italy and Tunisia agreed the provision of additional equipment and training for Tunisian security authorities, and the first specific weekly quota of deportations, is still classified – partly because the 2011 deal was not a formal bilateral treaty, just a "verbal agreement", which is not subject to any parliamentary control.

Tunisian NGO calls for transparency

It is this lack of transparency in the co-operation between Rome and Tunis on migration policy that has frequently caused discontent in Tunisian civil society in the past – and again following the publication of the most recent reports on additional deportations. In a statement made last week, FTDES criticised the lack of transparency in negotiations for the new deportation agreement, and called on Tunisia’s parliament to hold the government to account for their co-operation on migration with the EU and Italy.


The NGO is also indignant at statements made by Tunisia’s foreign minister, Othman Jerandi, who at the end of September denied that Italy had been putting pressure on Tunisia for greater co-operation on migration. There were no "forced deportations" of Tunisian migrants from Italy, the diplomat told the Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM; deportations occurred in accordance with the agreement made between the two nations.

 As FTDES spokesman Romdhane Ben Amor told Qantara.de, this shows one thing above all: "Tunisia has not changed its policy, although President Kais Saied promised a different migration policy. We were hoping that something would move under his leadership."

In fact Saied, who has only held the presidency since the end of 2019, has so far created a rhetoric that has raised hopes of a more confident foreign policy in Tunisia. He has several times explicitly rejected an approach that regards irregular migration as solely a security issue, and insisted on finally starting to combat the motives for this migration by creating jobs and prospects in Tunisia.

The new deportation agreement between Rome and Tunis has therefore left Tunisian civil society feeling disillusioned, partly because parliament and public were once again shut out as the agreement was waved through in Tunis.

Sofian Philip Naceur

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin