The stability of Tunisia is threatened because of the escalation of tensions of neighbouring countries, which are Libya, Mali and Nigeria. Moreover, the country is facing a severe political and economic crisis, with social tensions, and they intensified with the pandemic.
The flow of illegal migrants from Tunisia has increased fourfold in 2020, due to several reasons. First, we cite geographical proximity. A boat leaving from Libya sails about 210 km, while it takes half the distance from Tunisia. That is why Tunisians have a greater chance to reach their destination. Besides, the Tunisian coast, after 2011, has become a transit spot for migrants, from the Maghreb and the Sub Saharan Africa, aiming to reach Europe.
Risky Tunisia affects the EU
The phenomenon of migration in general and irregular migration in particular is often explained with scientific theories to better understand the causes and consequences. But, the striking fact is that the phenomenon of irregular migration that started in Tunisia in the 90s comes in waves after protests against a declining economy hurt by a political instability.
After the repression of the uprisings in the mining basin of Gafsa1 in 2008, the number of Tunisian migrants reaching Lampedusa is 6,762. The figures subsequently decreased, between 2009 and 2010 as a result of some security approaches, not development. After the 2011 revolution, with a lack of equipment to effectively patrol the country’s land and sea borders2, the second wave returned, and around 30,000 illegal migrants reached the Italian coasts, these migrants were mostly Tunisians and African workers who fled Libya, not to mention ghost landings or the number of victims who had disappeared or drowned.
In addition, in 2016, Tunisia witnessed several events, which were the catalyst of a series of social protests calling for employment and social conditions’ improvement. They had expanded and intensified until 2017 when demonstrators closed the road to the oil production field in the far south of Tunisia. But, the striking sociological paradox is that after the rise of protest movements, the number of illegal migrants has increased3. This phenomenon has not stopped, but it decreases from one period to the next, and reappears as major waves after each protest against the deterioration of the economy or each political event affecting the stability of the country. This is currently the case of Tunisia, which is experiencing a political instability, which intensified after the 2019 elections with the inability to form a government due to the proportional voting system and the disruption of the parliament due to skirmishes between a bloc affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and another with the Progressive Movement.
Since the start of 2020, attempts to cross the Mediterranean have risen sharply compared to the first half of 2019. From Tunisia, they increased by 462%, according to UNHCR. And they continue increasing in particular in July after the end of the first wave of Covid19.
A new factor for illegal migration in the region can worsen the situation
The actual new domestic and regional context is altering the socio-political framework in which immigration policy has been formed, due to the growing terrorist movements in the region.
The traditional immigration’s factor is obviously economic. Desperation, lack of opportunity and high unemployment rate push people to look elsewhere and dream of leaving.
However, contrary to a widely shared assumption, it is not only the poorest who migrate, but also those who can afford the high cost of the trip and hope for a better social promotion abroad than the one they would have in their own country.
The new emerging factor of immigration for North and Sub Saharan Africa is that of survival in a context of terrorism. In armed conflicts, affected people will be more likely to migrate, just like the current cases of Syria, Iraq and the Vietnamese boat people. Mali and Nigeria, with poor governance, weak economic conditions and civil war, are far from successfully counter the terrorism threat with a real risk of conjunction between Daesh in Libya, Al Qaida in Mali and Boko Haram in Nigeria. As Algeria has fortified its borders and deployed more troops to secure it, more African migrants find it easier to go through the Libyan desert due to the chaos there, then use Tunisia as a ‘departure bridge’ to the European continent.
The importance of preventing uncontrolled migration rather than managing it
It’s relevant to balance short and long term objectives in order to tackle the problem in Tunisia and Europe. Tunisia’s interest lies in economic recovery, and the EU should focus on assisting it in the implementation of its own migration policy while respecting its sovereignty.
However, because of the USA/China trade war and the pandemic, European companies are fleeing China and are considering moving their production back to Europe. With the need of more workers, wouldn’t that further deepen the migrant crisis?
1 Eric Gobe. The Gafsa Mining Basin between Riots and a Social Movement: meaning and significance of a protest movement in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. 2010.
2 Moncef Kartas. On the Edge? Trafficking and Insecurity at the Tunisian–Libyan Border 2013, p50.
3 Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, Maghreb Migration Observatory, Report: Non-regulatory migration. Tunisia 2019, p 33.