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Externalizing Borders or Externalizing Repression? Tunisia at the Center of a Failed Asylum Architecture

As Tunisia becomes increasingly hostile and Europe opts for border externalization, refugees and asylum seekers find themselves stuck in limbo, desperately awaiting humane living conditions, employment, or even resettlement.


Since Kais Saied’s statement on February 21, in which he accused “hordes of illegal Sub-Saharan migrants” of perpetuating violent crimes and of having plans to change Tunisia’s demographic composition, Black people in Tunisia have faced all kinds of hardships and racist discrimination. This comes at a time when international organizations, such as the UNHCR, find themselves wedged between the political agendas of donors—in their vast majority European countries that want to curb migration coming from the Mediterranean—and having to comply with Tunisia’s interests. All this takes place at the expense of refugees and asylum seekers, for whom going back is, more often than not, not an option.

In early July, racist attacks in the city of Sfax, Tunisia’s second biggest city, led to massive expulsions of up to 2,000 Sub-Saharan migrants to remote desert locations bordering Algeria or Libya, including some registered asylum seekers and students. At least 27 have died from thirst or heat strokes in the desert’s scorching sun up until today; among the victims are Fatty Dosso and her six-year old daughter Marie, whose pictures were widely shared. More than a month later, hundreds of people were still there with limited access to food or water, entrapped by both Tunisian and Libyan authorities. No humanitarian agency was allowed access to the zone in the first few days, while many of the migrants who were not expelled to the desert remain homeless in Sfax, a city where spots under the shade of olive branches started to be rented out at 5 dinars an hour. 

In Lac1, Tunis—one of the capital’s most expensive neighborhoods—hundreds of asylum seekers and refugees are camped in front of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), awaiting assistance, sleeping in tents or just mattresses in the open air, with no shelter from the burning heat. For more than a month in March, approximately 200 refugees and asylum seekers organized a sit-in in front of the UNHCR to demand protection and/or resettlement to another country that would respect their human rights. On April 11, police violently dispersed their sit-in under demand from the UNHCR, according to the spokesman for the interior ministry. They are now left homeless again, having lost all of their belongings due to the police crackdown, and rely heavily on donations from civil society organizations for clothes, food, tents, and other basic necessities. 

“They don’t want us to stay, and yet we can’t leave. Where are we supposed to go? We fled wars in our countries to come here […] To me, the only solution now is the sea. Whether I live or die,” testifies a Sudanese refugee who has been living in Tunisia for four years.

“They don’t want us to stay, and yet we can’t leave. Where are we supposed to go? We fled wars in our countries to come here […] To me, the only solution now is the sea. Whether I live or die,” testifies a Sudanese refugee who has been living in Tunisia for four years.

This incident is far from being the first refugee protest in Tunisia. For years now, refugees and asylum seekers have been demanding better protection and living conditions, or even resettlement to another country. 

Harsh socioeconomic conditions

Tunisia’s economic crisis offers little employment opportunities for refugees and asylum seekers. Most of them work in informal sectors, without protection and at the mercy of their employers. Cash assistance was only given to 734 people in 2023, who are in the most vulnerable situations, which leaves refugees and asylum seekers having to accept exploitative or even dangerous jobs.

Refugees and asylum seekers are often housed in unsanitary and overcrowded centers. They testify to having water cuts, no heating, and electricity shortages, among other issues. Hundreds are homeless because of lack of housing and mass evictions following Saied’s statement. 

Racist discrimination, the lack of access to employment and education, lengthy administrative procedures—all of these are not new issues. “Every day, when I use public transport, people insult me, tell me why haven’t you been kicked out already. […] We’re human beings, we cannot live like this,” explained Awadhiya. “We have dreams, plans for our lives. Most of us are educated. We can’t waste several years waiting here,” insisted another protester, who is having a hard time finding employment.

Absence of a national asylum law 

“In Tunisia, [refugees and asylum seekers receive] a card, given by the UNHCR, but that doesn’t really protect them,” explains Zeineb Mrouki, program manager at Lawyers Without Borders. Without legal frameworks, the refugee card is rendered almost useless to its holders in Tunisia, “almost like a library card,” illustrates Mrouki in a statement to TIMEP.

As Tunisia refuses to pass an asylum law, responsibility for the mistreatment of refugees and asylum seekers is left only for international organizations, who act as a façade for violent and discriminatory policies, according to researcher Sophie-Anne Bisiaux. 

In theory, a refugee status is supposed to provide its beneficiaries with education and employment opportunities equal to that of nationals, according to international conventions ratified by Tunisia. But refugees and asylum seekers in Tunisia hardly have access to any of these human rights due to the lack of national legislation. Identification cards are mainly useful when in contact with local authorities, to prevent detention or refoulement. Mrouki reports that there were several cases of refugees and asylum seekers arrested by police, even when possessing these cards, in which case the UNHCR usually tries to provide them with legal assistance. These cards did not protect some asylum seekers who were arbitrarily expelled and stranded in the desert, in violation of international law. 

Lack of funding 

Along with the absence of a national asylum law, lack of funding is another reason presented by UNHCR officials to explain the horrendous conditions in some shelters and the way assistance is provided to refugees. Only half of the UNHCR’s Tunisia office’s required funding for 2023 is accounted for. Most of it is directed toward well-being and basic needs, while only a meager part is allocated to resettlement and complementary pathways. Their funding has been in steady decline since 2020, and the numbers of refugees in Tunisia has more than doubled since, reaching an all-time high of 13,030 refugees and asylum seekers to provide for. In 2014, the organization had approximately $5,000 of expenditure per beneficiary. In 2023, this has decreased to barely $650 per refugee or asylum seeker. 

Funding for UNHCR’s Tunisia office comes in its vast majority from European countries—mainly Italy and the Netherlands in 2023—which have a political agenda aimed at curbing migration coming from the Mediterranean

Moreover, funding for UNHCR’s Tunisia office comes in its vast majority from European countries—mainly Italy and the Netherlands in 2023—which have a political agenda aimed at curbing migration coming from the Mediterranean. “The UNHCR cannot afford to be too critical of its donors, for its own survival,” argues Paolo Cuttitta, researcher on migration. This reality influences the organization’s actions and programs, which ultimately serve border externalization efforts. 

Pressure from the Italian and Dutch government only grew as Tunisia became the main departure point for migration to Europe, replacing Libya. Over the course of July, “Team Europe”—composed of the far-right Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen—made multiple visits to Tunisia in an attempt to find an agreement to stop migration. European states’ ultimate goal would be to present Tunisia as a safe third country, in which human and asylum rights are respected, thus making it a hub for migration control. 

A tool for European border externalization

According to Bisiaux, however, international organizations like the UNHCR and IOM are not simply victims of lack of funding. In order to ensure their donors’ support, they have implemented several strategies aligned with European countries’ interests. 

Reports mention the UNHCR’s involvement in providing technological equipment for migration control, as well as systematically preventing those rescued at sea the opportunity to apply for asylum. In addition, there are indications that some migrants were deterred from asking for their rights, that certain nationalities had the process expedited, or that some of those who protested their living conditions were silenced or even punished. 

From an emigration post to a transit country, Tunisia’s partnership with the European Union has gradually evolved. Since the mid-1990s, multiple accords between Tunisia and the EU have aimed at sending back irregular Tunisian migrants. In the years following the revolution, Tunisia started being considered as a transit country. Following the arrival of Libyans fleeing the conflict in 2011, the UNHCR signed a partnership with the Tunisian government to build the first camp and take care of registration and status determination for refugees, while the IOM organized voluntary return. Since 2015, international organizations—supported by the EU—pushed for Tunisia to adopt a national asylum legislation, but were faced with public officials’ refusal; a draft law was even prepared by the parliament but was never voted on.

Behind the official refusal 

Official narratives claim that “Tunisia refuses to be a policeman for other countries’ borders,” as Kais Saied claimed in June 2023, but in reality, the country’s security forces have been taking on this role for several years. 

Tunisia has been accepting various tools aimed at migration control, from more centers opening up, to new biometric equipment aimed at identifying migrants, to training security forces. In the past decade, millions of dollars have been used as development aid to control migration in Tunisia. From 2018 onward, around $33 million were granted by the EU to help the Tunisian Maritime National Guard implement a more efficient surveillance system and intercept more people, despite the coast guards’ violent track record, including stealing engines out of migrants’ ships. Tunisian authorities have so far intercepted over 35,000 migrants in 2023. 

In June, European commission representatives visited Tunisia to suggest a new partnership, which includes an aid package of approximately $986 million in order to halt irregular migration. By July 16, a Memorandum of Understanding for “strategic cooperation” was finalized between Team Europe and Tunisia, which lists stopping irregular migration as “a common priority.” 

The EU’s Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also pledged $115 million to help Tunisia with border management and “rescue” operations, as well improving registration and returns. While hundreds of migrants were still stranded in no man’s land after being expelled by Tunisian authorities, the agreement mentioned twice the need to respect migrants’ human rights and their dignity.

“The migration agreement makes the EU complicit in human rights violations against asylum seekers, migrants and refugees” reads a statement by Amnesty International on the agreement. “The EU’s leaders are once again embarking on a failed policy based on total disregard for fundamental human rights standards.”

In addition to stopping the boats from leaving Tunisian shores, Italy’s ultimate goal would be to return to Tunisia any migrant that has lived in or transited through the country. A new deal, agreed upon by the European Council in early June highlights this attempt. If this accord is voted by the EU Parliament, European countries would be allowed to choose which third countries they consider safe enough to send migrants back to. Italy is said to have pushed for this clause to ultimately send back to Tunisia most of the asylum seekers it rejects. 

A compromise that overlooks migrants’ rights 

UNHCR also collaborates with local governments that only tolerate its work as long as it does not burden them. Tunisia uses migrants as both financial and diplomatic pressure points, in hopes of obtaining funding and support, despite its human rights violations. 

International organizations therefore find themselves torn between their own mandate, the interests of its European donors, and the aims of national authorities who refuse to accommodate asylum seekers too much

International organizations therefore find themselves torn between their own mandate, the interests of its European donors, and the aims of national authorities who refuse to accommodate asylum seekers too much. This compromise often leads to a situation where migrants’ rights are not always the priority.

Moreover, these unwelcoming policies are an integral part of EU’s border externalization, according to Sophie-Anne Bisiaux. If Tunisia were welcoming, migrants would be more inclined to come, in hopes of eventually applying for asylum in Europe—a situation that both Tunisia and European states are trying to avoid as much as possible. Conditions are therefore kept dire, as to “push migrants to return to their country of origin,” according to Bisiaux

In a complicated attempt to satisfy both the EU and Tunisia, and to avoid being too “welcoming,” UNHCR policies have led to a gap in migrants’ protection that only increases irregular migration attempts. And illegal crossings have reached an all-time high. In 2023, the number of migrants arriving to Italy’s shores doubled compared to the same period last year, while many were intercepted at sea. More migrants are dying in the Mediterranean Sea; 900 died trying to cross into Europe since the beginning of 2023. 

A possible reform?

Resettlement procedures remain extremely complicated. Only 1 percent of refugees worldwide are resettled, mainly refugees from war-torn countries. In 2023, only two people were resettled from Tunisia into another country. 

The most radical solution, albeit unrealistic given how things are in Tunisia, would be to recognize people’s right to mobility, effectively implement a national asylum law that would provide protection for refugees and asylum seekers, and stop externalization attempts from European states. Besides this new law, this political change would entail respecting existing laws, such as the anti-racial discrimination law, according to Alaa Talbi, Executive Director of the FTDES. 

Similarly, international organizations such as the UNHCR could also focus on doing more advocacy for the implementation of this law and real integration of asylum seekers and refugees, rather than provide basic necessities and put them in camps that take away all of the migrants’ agency, according to Mrouki. Setting realistic expectations and improving direct communication with the refugees and asylum seekers are also amongst the solutions mentioned by researchers, as being transparent with their limitations could change the established dynamic.

For those who were left in the desert, what lies ahead is uncertain. A few days after the massive expulsions in Sfax, some groups of migrants were taken by security forces and housed in high schools in several southern Tunisian cities. Testimonies coming out of one of those schools reveal horrific conditions, with lack of access to food, water, and medical assistance, as well as armed guards limiting any of the migrants’s movement.

Hundreds remained stranded up until August 10, when Tunisian and Libyan authorities finally reached an agreement to place half of these refugees in several IOM centers, where they will be housed for two months and offered voluntary return options. “The current context is also to push migrants to accept voluntary return, in other words to put migrants in a precarious situation, an inhumane situation, to force them to accept that the only demand will be so-called voluntary return,” states FTDES spokesman Romdhane Ben Amor. 

Nesrine Zribi is a freelance journalist based in Tunisia who previously worked for Inkyfada, an independent investigative media.

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