The European Commission’s whopping deal to resuscitate Tunisia’s economy as part of a wider effort to stem the flow of refugees to its borders has rights groups concerned that it is propping up President Kais Saied’s increasingly authoritarian government.
European Union representatives announced the assistance package amounting to more than 1 billion euros ($1.07bn) during a visit on Sunday to the North African country, embroiled in crises both economic and political in nature.
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The deal includes 105 million euros ($113m) for border management, search and rescue operations, and anti-smuggling initiatives. Rights groups say this will only bolster the country’s security apparatus, which in recent months has been leading a crackdown on dissidents within the country, as well as against refugees and migrants hoping to transit through there.
The proposed deal would “reinforce Tunisian security forces, including police and the national guard at sea”, who have “committed serious abuses against migrants and asylum-seekers”, Lauren Seibert, a researcher at Human Rights Watch’s refugee and migrant rights division told the German broadcaster Deutsche-Welle on Wednesday.
Italy’s ‘superficial’ stabilisation quest
The European visit included the participation of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and Italian and Dutch Prime Ministers Giorgia Meloni and Mark Rutte, respectively.
In advance of the visit, Matteo de Bellis, a researcher at Amnesty International, called out Italy in particular for turning a blind eye to Tunisia’s repression.
Italy is the destination for most refugee and migrant departures from Tunisia, and blocking this route has been a priority for Italy’s far-right leader.
“In attempting to stop departures, Italy has offered the Tunisian government help without demanding greater respect for human rights. In doing so, it risks shoring up an increasingly repressive leader and encouraging more and more abuses,” de Bellis wrote in an editorial in the Italian outlet Domani late last month.
Yasmine Akrimi, North Africa research analyst at Brussels International Center, echoed the sentiment that Italy is willing to overlook these abuses as its sole priority is keeping away refugees and migrants.
“The only thing Italy cares about is to superficially stabilise … North African countries to effectively implement EU’s externalisation border policies [to guard] the borders of Europe,” Akrimi told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story.
In July 2021, President Saied sacked the government and suspended parliament before moving to rule by decree and eventually taking control of the judiciary.
As Saeid’s authoritarian shift deepens, dozens of dissidents, activists, journalists and opposition figures have been arrested in recent months, sparking condemnation from the international community and rights groups.
‘Politically canny’ tactics
Saeid, for his part, a day before the European representatives’ visit, declared that Tunisia would not become a border guard for other countries.
But that was in contrast to his February 21 speech in which he urged security forces to take action against people from sub-Saharan Africa, saying they bring violence and crime to Tunisia, which led to police detaining hundreds of people in a wide-scale crackdown and individual racist attacks.
Tarek Kahlaoui, a columnist and former director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies, said his U-turn on the issue is a political tactic.
“He’s politically canny,” Kahlaoui told Inside Story, adding that Saeid’s government is working on an alternative proposal to the International Monetary Fund’s $1.9bn loan agreement negotiated last year that may very well see the country acting as Europe’s coastguard.
Refugees and migrants are undertaking the perilous journey from Tunisia in unprecedented numbers, with Tunisian authorities saying they stopped 13,000 people from attempting to cross to Italy from the eastern coastal city of Sfax in the first three months of this year.