64 of 75 migrants stranded off Tunisian coast agree to return home

The Bangladeshi nationals and their fellow refugees were headed to Europe when their boat capsized. They were rescued by another vessel which was not allowed permission to dock by Tunisian authorities

June 19, 2019 by Pavan Kulkarni
Migrant crisis Tunisia

64 Bangladeshi nationals who were among the 75 migrants stranded on a boat off the Tunisian coast since May 31 have agreed to return to their country.

The 75 migrants had set sail from Libya, and were headed towards Italy. After their overcrowded boats capsized, they were reportedly adrift on the Mediterranean Sea for eight hours. They were rescued on May 31 by fishermen on a tugboat, Maridive 601, on the international waters off Tunisia’s southern coastline.

The tugboat then sailed to the nearest port in the city of Zarzis. However, the authorities refused the captain’s request for permission to dock. The boat, which does not have enough fuel to continue to the next port, has since remained anchored 25 km off it. Many have fallen ill. A Red Crescent team from the city delivered aid and medicare care, but many refused to accept it.

At least 32 of the 75 migrants were unaccompanied minors, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a statement. In addition to the Bangladeshi nations, the boat had nine refugees from Egypt, and one each from Morocco and Sudan.

While refusing to allow the boat to dock, Tunisian officials had complained that their migrant centers, which actually serve the function of detention centers, were already overcrowded with refugees that have been stopped from crossing over to the EU.

Last year, over 11,400 attempts to cross the Mediterranean were intercepted by the Tunisian authorities, interior minister Hichem Fourati told the parliament last week. Another 965 attempts were foiled in the first five months of this year alone.

Such “irregular migrants held in secret detention centers whose exact locations remain unknown had no chance to get access to legal aid and make an asylum claim. Deprived of their basic rights, including the right to seek asylum, the detainees were either forced to pay for their own deportation to their country of origin, or, if they did not have the funds to pay for their flight back home, they were dumped by the Tunisian security forces in the desert on the Tunisian-Algerian border,” said a paper published in the Journal of International Migration and Integration last year.

A long history of co-option

The task of curtailing migration into Europe was outsourced to Tunisia through a series of bilateral agreements that were signed well before the so-called refugee crisis started.

The first of these forced detention centers was set up in Tunisia way back in 1998, when the first of such bilateral agreements was signed with Italy, which paid USD 280,326 explicitly for its creation. The agreements allowed migrants to be sent back to Tunisia from European territory.

This was followed by another agreement with France in 2009. At the time, when the country was ruled by the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, having such agreements with European countries was one of the ways in which the Tunisian state sought international legitimacy.

However, soon after he was ousted in January 2011 during the so-called “Arab Spring”, European countries increased the money channeled into Tunisia to stop migrants from crossing the Mediterranean from its territory.

In April that year, another agreement was signed with Italy, which further simplified the procedures that Italy had to follow before repatriating migrants back to Tunisia. Apart from providing ten patrol boats and a hundred off-road vehicles, Italy also pledged USD 224 million in aid and other credit to Tunisia to stop “clandestine migration”. On the other hand, Italy and France announced “joint air and naval patrols off the Tunisian coast to block departures of irregular migrants from Tunisia”.

The two countries, along with others in the US-led NATO block, launched the war on Libya. The war marked the beginning of a region-wide destabilization that triggered an exodus, sharply increasing the number of refugees fleeing from North Africa to Europe.

Since then, the EU and its member countries have signed a number of agreements with numerous countries in this troubled region, including Libya itself, to stop refugees from crossing the Mediterranean.

By 2013, the EU’s financial aid to Tunisia, channeled through the European Neighborhood Instrument (ENI), had reached almost USD 544 million, which was twice that in 2011, according to a report by the Global Detention Project. The report added that it is unclear how much of this amount was “apportioned to migration-related spending”.

Policing the Mediterranean frontier

Two years into the post-dictatorship transition to democracy, Tunisia’s role of guarding Europe’s Mediterranean frontier had only increased. However, unlike under the previous regime, an active civil society that had come into being took a stand against this role.

The ‘Mobility Partnership’ agreement, in which Tunisia committed to curtail the mobility of the migrants in exchange for visas for the Tunisian elite, faced considerable opposition.

At the time when this agreement was being negotiated in late 2013, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH), the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD), as well as other national and international organizations demanded “a moratorium on all negotiations and on the implementation of all migration agreements with the EU and its member states, which are in breach of the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers and which are inconsistent with the international treaties ratified by Tunisia and EU member states.”

Addressing the EU, their joint statement further demanded the suspension of all negotiations on migration with Tunisia until the country acquired stable institutions, an elected parliamentary assembly with full authority on the issue, as well as adopted legislation on migration in full conformity with international law, to respect and protect the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

At the time, a similar partnership was being negotiated with Morocco, which was also facing political instability.

“Morocco and Tunisia resisted for some time pressure from the EU to sign readmission agreements. These agreements co-opt states into the EU’s migration governance, and include a commitment to cooperation on the expulsion of unwanted migrants in Europe,” stated a working paper published by the European University Institute’s Robert Schuman Center for Advanced Studies.

“The EU exploited the extremely fragile and uncertain political context after the start of the uprisings, in order to push Morocco and Tunisia to sign up to the Mobility Partnership,” the paper added.

Tunisia signed the agreement by 2014, which laid the framework for further negotiations, which began in 2016. In these negotiations, the EU also made some trade concessions by providing Tunisia’s olive oil access to the heavily protected European agricultural market.

The EU’s financial aid to Tunisia had reached USD 3.93 billion by 2017, when more than 10,000 attempts by migrants to cross the Mediterranean were foiled by Tunisian authorities. Thousands of these migrants continue to remain in detention centers, the locations of most of which are undisclosed.

The IOM estimates that at least 550 have died so far by drowning in the troubled waters. The fate of the nine other migrants is still uncertain.

(This story has been updated)