Tunisia’s choice: Migration and realpolitik in the Mediterranean

Tunisia’s relationship with Europe remains firm as the EU courts Tunis’s help in stopping migration.

rowboats in the sea with colorful plastic bottles on the rocks
Thousands of refugees wait in Tunisia to earn enough money to make a perilous journey by boat to Europe, seeking a better life [File: Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

A storm is gathering over the Mediterranean.

At its turbulent centre lies Tunisia and those making their way there from across Africa to join with thousands of local emigres in the hope of building new lives in Europe.

At its periphery lie political arguments over Europe’s internal politics, the energy needs of the bloc and even the war in Ukraine.

However, at its heart are human pain and, ultimately, hope for a better future.

Tamba spent about $2,000 to get from Sierra Leone to Tunisia. “I travelled by road, through the desert, from Guinea, Mali and Algeria, then here,” he said of the journey of about 6,000km (3,730 miles).

There is nothing for Tamba in Tunisia, he says, but unemployment and the racism of local inhabitants, which forced him from his apartment into a makeshift encampment outside the buildings of the International Organization for Migration, where he shelters with others awaiting passage to Europe or for some kind of solution. He has no idea what that could be, he says.

If he is able to leave for Europe, Tamba would join the 12,000 people already reported to have made their way informally across the Mediterranean to Italy during just the first quarter of this year. Libya, the second-largest source of irregular migration to Italy, saw about 7,000 people leave over the same period.

A man in a woolly hat shows his injured face
A Nigerian in Tunis shows a wound he received from local children shortly after President Kais Saied made a speech in February that blamed sub-Saharan Africans for creating a demographic change in Tunisia [File: Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

Hundreds of others have drowned trying to make the same trip. From just April 18 to 28, 210 bodies were recovered off the beaches around central Tunisia. Morgues are straining to deal with the influx.

The recent conflict in Sudan, which has supercharged the numbers of people fleeing across the continent, is unlikely to help limit departure numbers.

‘Systematically tortured’

Both Tunisia and Libya struggle to meet anyone’s definition of a safe harbour. Since their 2011 revolutions, Libya has striven to free itself from anarchy, civil war and the chaos of rival governments, and Tunisia, which, until recently, was on a hopeful, if flawed, democratic transition, has been reverting by degrees to the kind of authoritarianism that defined much of the continent before 2011.

Neither offers much of a welcome for those fleeing famine, warfare and poverty.

In Libya, militias hold the refugees in camps, subjecting them to regular beatings, torture and even rape. With no central government and overall power disputed, Libyan security forces and various militias have taken advantage of the absence of accountability to engage in war crimes as well as crimes against humanity, according to a March report by the United Nations.

“Migrants have been targeted and there is overwhelming evidence that they have been systematically tortured,” the report said.

an upturned boat on the shore, water behind
Everyone getting on a boat in Tunisia knows the journey will be one way [File: Simon Speakman Cordall/Al Jazeera]

For those able to escape or avoid the Libyan camps, Tunisia offers little respite. It is locked in an economic crisis and roiling under the populist conspiracies of its president, Kais Saied, whose own sense of persecution dominates much of the national conversation, pulling focus from the country’s rising authoritarianism and dramatic decline in global regard.

At the time of the writing of this article, 28 opponents and critics of the president had been arrested during his latest purge, including the divisive head of the self-styled Muslim democrats, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of Ennahdha, a party that has lost popularity in recent years, having previously been the largest party in parliament before Saied dissolved it in 2021.

In this latest round of arrests, the charges range from “undermining the security of the State” to “conspiring with foreign powers” and “intention to change the nature of the State”. All carry long sentences.

In late February, egged on by an online campaign, the president took his conspiracies still further, blaming the country’s undocumented Black refugees for many of the country’s societal ills. Violence then erupted against many who had been living in the country, so they could attempt to cross the rough seas to Europe.

Testimony to the risks of that endeavour can be found in the country’s overcrowded morgues, which every unsuccessful crossing inevitably contributes to.

“Usually sub-Saharan migrants depart from [the central Tunisian coastal region of] Sfax in small metal boats built only for migrants, which are very dangerous and unstable,” said Italian prosecutor Salvatore Vella, who specialises in migration cases. “This type of vessel has contributed to the increase in deaths at sea.”

Several of those flat-bottomed boats, crudely welded together and often without the keels needed for stability, can be found dotted along the beaches near Sfax, awaiting their human cargo. With wood in short supply, metal boats can be swiftly constructed for a journey that all involved know will be one way.

Tunisians join the exodus

Undocumented Black emigres await passage in neighbouring villages, where the families of local fishermen instruct them in the rudiments of navigation and basic mechanics, said Koffi*, a potential passenger from Ivory Coast.

A woman beaten until her eye is swollen shut looks at the camera out of her other eye
A Cameroonian woman in Tunisia was raped after the president’s February speech [Courtesy of the Anti-Fascist Front]

With the seas now beginning to settle, Tunisians in their thousands are beginning to join them, making the journey in typically better-constructed boats. They go in search of better lives in Europe, all while many voice their absolute support for the president, whose purges and political restructuring they are fleeing.

“The democratic culture in Tunisia remains fairly weak,” said Amine Ghali of the Kawakibi Democracy Transition Centre in Tunis. “We never had the kind of institutions that could defend it against the advances of a president such as Saied.”

“President Saied’s populist appeal is attracting and holding the loyalty of many,” he said, explaining why the wider public redirects blame for Tunisia’s dire economic circumstances away from the president.

“People take solace in this notion of the ‘strong man’,” Ghali said, referring to popular nostalgia for such past figures as Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first independent president, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose pan-Arabist vision at a time of growing political and economic confidence chimed with many people across the continent.

“Internationally, the IMF speaks of conditioning their bailout on internal reform,” Ghali said. “Domestically, the president speaks of ‘diktats’. It’s popular, it justifies his authoritarianism, but it doesn’t really help the country, and so we see migration.”

Europe’s fear of the people at its doorstep

All the while, the European Union and Italy have stuck to their long-held strategy of putting the burden of undocumented immigration on countries outside the bloc. The effects of this policy are growing in Libya and Tunisia by the day.

Despite extensive rights abuses across Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Egypt, the EU announced in February its plans to deliver 800 million euros ($877m) to North African countries to halt the irregular movement of people. Italy paid 11 million euros ($12m) to Libya’s coastguard and navy, seemingly blind to the conditions meted out to refugees by militias there.

It also has paid about 75 million euros ($82.2m) since 2017 to keep Tunisia’s coastguard afloat, ignoring growing reports of refugees being abandoned at sea with their boat’s engines removed.

Coastguards retrieve a body, which according to them belongs to a migrant, in Sfax, Tunisia April 26, 2023. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui
Coastguard officers retrieve a body that they say was a refugee in Sfax, Tunisia [File: Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Hostility to irregular arrivals is growing across the EU and is not occurring only in the south. It is fuelled by populist rhetoric, politicians claiming their countries have “lost control” of their borders and the rising cost of living, meaning hardship for many people and, inevitably, suspicion of new arrivals.

However, Italy’s location close to Africa promises reward as well as threat, not least as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While undocumented arrivals from Africa are causing an undeniable strain on Italy, it’s also true that the continent remains one of the richest in the world in terms of natural resources, including energy and the potential for solar power. None of this is new to Italian policymakers looking to revive a plan dating back to before the current term.

However, Italy’s far-right prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, and her foreign minister, Antonio Tajani, have both been active in the region, preparing the ground for the “Mattei Plan”, which seeks to establish Italy as a European gateway for African energy.

Since January, Italy has inked an $8bn deal with Libya for gas, carbon capture and solar power development. In Algeria, Meloni has been active in boosting the creaking output of energy giant Sonatrach. There are further opportunities across the continent with Nigeria and the long-in-gestation pipeline linking the country to the North African coast among them. In theory, the potential for solar power is only limited by Africa’s acreage.

However, Italy’s ambitious plans are predicated on securing some kind of social stability within the continent and limiting the flow of people to Italy’s borders, principally from cash-strapped Tunisia.

Tunisia does not have the kind of energy reserves enjoyed by its neighbours, and its economic circumstances are, to say the least, perilous. It is heavily indebted. The lion’s share of its budgets since its 2011 revolution have been allocated to social spending, and the country has long been mired in the economic doldrums.

Italy, for its part, recognises Saied’s absolute grip on the country and, denied any workable alternative, looks to be going all in with the Tunisian president, whatever concerns are voiced elsewhere from the West.

That some kind of aid is needed is hard to dispute. According to Aram Belhadj, an economist at the University of Carthage in Tunis, Tunisia’s currency reserves are shrinking. Moreover, its local banking network, which carries the bulk of Tunisia’s debt, is straining to hold up, making default on other loans a real possibility.

However, the IMF bailout remains contentious, not least due to Saied’s political intransigence and the IMF’s long history of requiring neo-liberal reforms. Irrespective of need, Saied continues to push back against the lender, encouraging the Tunisian people to draw upon their own resources to weather the economic storm.

It isn’t just the IMF. In recent months, Saied’s interpretation of the near-limitless power of the Tunisian presidency has pitted him against a range of powers, not least the US, the IMF’s principal shareholder.

However, rather than isolating Saied entirely, international censure appears to have served to further consolidate his alliance with Italy. While pressure is growing to make internal reform a condition of aid to Tunisia, Italy has stood firm, stressing the “constant contact” its foreign ministry maintains with Tunisia as well as galvanising as much funding as possible for the North African state.

Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa sit in a makeshift boat intercepted by Tunisian authorities about 50 nautical miles in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of the city of Sfax.
Refugees from sub-Saharan Africa sit in a makeshift boat intercepted by Tunisian authorities about 50 nautical miles off Sfax [File: Fethi Belaid/AFP]

“Tajani and Meloni have repeatedly stressed that Tunisia’s collapse would lead to massive migrant flows,” Andrea Dessi, head of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Africa Programme at the Instituto Affari Internazionali think tank in Rome, told Al Jazeera.

“That’s obviously bad in itself, but it also runs counter to Meloni’s plans to establish Italy as an energy hub in the Western Med, a bridge between Africa and Europe. These are huge ambitions, on which little concrete is known, but a plan is expected for October.

“For this to work, Meloni needs to establish her reputation in the continent and [ensure] stability in North Africa. She needs, in effect, to be Europe’s Africa Whisperer. Not an easy feat for Italy, I would add.”

A lot depends upon her success for a country long considered the “sick man of Europe”. Meloni’s new government hopes to mark a dramatic break from the technocratic rule of her predecessor, Mario Draghi. However, faced with an ageing population and a birth rate so low as to tip the country into a demographic crisis, the Mattei Plan could offer Meloni the lifeline she needs.

However, in the narrow flagged streets of the medina in central Sfax, little of this matters.

Koffi stands with some friends, a flatbread in his hand. He’s been waiting in the industrial city, working two jobs while he saves up money to leave. Sooner or later – sooner he hopes – he’ll have the money to make the crossing.

He knows the risks, he said. “If you have a dream in your mind, you will go,” he said. “Nothing will stop you.”

* Name changed to protect the individual

Source: Al Jazeera