Brussels, Belgium, July 19, 2023 — This week, the European Union finalised an agreement with Tunisia to cooperate on curbing migration from the country. In recent months, Tunisia has overtaken Libya as the primary departure point in north Africa for people seeking protection in Europe.
The situation for refugees and other migrants in Tunisia has become increasingly precarious in recent months, with hostilities towards people from sub-Saharan Africa frequently bubbling over into violence. Last week, hundreds of people from sub-Saharan African countries were forced from the coastal city of Sfax by Tunisian security forces, and left stranded in a desolate desert area, without food, water or shelter.
Under the new agreement, the EU will partner with Tunisia on border management, including providing radars and other equipment to the Tunisian Coast Guard, and countering people smuggling. They also plan to cooperate on protection activities, and on expanding legal pathways to Europe - despite most EU states’ failure to fulfil their pledges to bring people to safety through existing routes.
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is calling on the EU to make sure that any migration partnerships with third countries are conditional on upholding fundamental rights. With the first quarter of 2023 the deadliest for migrants in the Central Mediterranean since 2017, it is also critical that the EU works to expand safe routes to protection, bolster search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and puts people - not borders - at the heart of continued negotiations as part of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.
Harlem Desir, IRC Senior Vice President, Europe, says:
“The latest agreement with Tunisia entails great risk of abuse, violence, and exploitation, driving migrants and refugees onto even more dangerous routes in search of safety. The protection of vulnerable people must not be sacrificed in the name of deterrence. This has been shown both ineffective and contrary to the most basic humanitarian principles.
“The EU urgently needs to overhaul its approach, ensuring that people are protected along the entirety of their routes. First, this deal - and any other EU migration partnerships with third countries - must be conditional on upholding the fundamental rights of people on the move. This includes encouraging third countries to expand access to asylum. Second, the EU must expand safe, regular routes to protection so that people are not driven to risk their lives on dangerous journeys. Third, as the European Parliament echoed last week, the EU needs to bolster search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean to prevent the death toll at sea mounting further still. And lastly, it’s vital that the EU’s ongoing migration reforms establish a humane and sustainable migration system that is rooted in the EU’s fundamental principles of respect for human rights and dignity. If it fails to do so, the EU risks being complicit in grave human rights violations unfolding at its borders.”
Notes to editors:
- According to the European Commission, 45,000 people have arrived in Europe from Tunisia since the start of 2023, marking a significant increase of arrivals on these deadly routes on previous years.
- The Tunisian Coast guard has intercepted more than 14,000 people trying to reach Europe in the first 3 months of 2023 - more than five times the number of those who attempted the trip the same time last year - sending them back to the country.
- In the first half of 2023, more than 600 people have been reported dead or missing off the Tunisian coast. Most recently, on 13 July, some 13 people died after their boat sank off the coast of Sfax, while at least 10 people remain missing after their boat capsized off the country’s coastline on 9 July.