Can the EU tempt Tunisia to stop migrants? 10:35 in Abroad Many member states, including the Netherlands, say they are reaching the limits of their reception capacity. A deal with Tunisia could potentially reduce the influx, but is such a deal feasible and desirable?

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Migrants spend the night in tents in front of a migration office in Tunis
NOS News
  • Kysia Hekster

    European Union correspondent

It is unclear whether and how much money the European Union is prepared to pay to Tunisia for stopping people from coming to Europe. But it is certain that the pressure on European Commissioner for Migration Ylva Johansson is high. The Swedish Social Democrat is in Tunisia today and tomorrow and will try to convince President Kais Saied that he needs to do more to stop illegal migration to the EU.

The number of asylum seekers in the EU is rising rapidly. Many member states, including the Netherlands, say they are reaching the limits of their reception capacity. The number of migrants coming to the EU via Tunisia is rising in particular. More than 30,000 people arrived in Italy in the first three months of this year, three times as many as in the same period last year.

More than half boarded a boat in Tunisia, almost ten times more than in the same period last year. It is estimated that more than a thousand people leave the area around coastal towns such as Sfax, less than 150 kilometers from Lampedusa, every day when the weather is favorable.

Dangerous journey

Not everyone achieves their goal. In the first quarter, at least 500 people drowned during the dangerous crossing. According to the Tunisian coastguard, the service has rescued more than 14,000 migrants in recent months. The vast majority of the drowning people come from countries in sub-Saharan Africa. But more and more Tunisians are also trying to get out of the country, which is on the brink of economic collapse.

Late last month, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell described the situation in Tunisia as “very dangerous” and warned: “If the country collapses economically or socially, new migration flows will come to Europe. We must avoid that.”

Borrell referred to the increasingly unstable situation in the country, which was the great democratic promise in the region just over a decade ago. The place where the Arab Spring started in 2010 and to which the EU has given a lot of money since then, about 3 billion euros. Much of it was for police and rule of law reform. But the hopes of 2010 are long gone.

Migrants outlawed

Since last year, President Saied has been increasingly anti-democratic. A new constitution was introduced that gave him much more power, he dissolved parliament and imprisoned more and more critics.

At the end of February, he gave a speech in which he called the migrants in his country “a source of violence and crime”. He also pointed to the danger of a change in Tunisia’s “demographic composition”. Since then, many migrants feel outlawed.

Kai Said

Can you make appointments with such a president? It is a complicated decision for the EU. By giving money, you legitimize the autocratic Saied, while the EU usually talks about spreading the democratic values ​​of the EU.

But doing nothing is not an option, according to many member states, given the ever-increasing migration figures. And so more and more countries are pushing for a deal with Tunisia: giving money, possibly billions of euros, to stop people who want to make the crossing.

“Talk Fast”

In 2016, the EU made similar agreements with Turkey, the so-called ‘Turkey deal’. It was agreed that the country would receive more than six billion euros to stop migrants and take back rejected asylum seekers in the EU. It was during the height of the refugee crisis: over a million asylum seekers came to Europe.

The Netherlands wants the EU to start talking to Tunisia about limiting the influx as soon as possible, said Secretary of State Eric van der Burg (Asylum) last week during a visit to his Italian colleague.


Italy also wants agreements that will lead to fewer people arriving in Lampedusa. But the country wants something else: that other countries within the EU take over asylum seekers. Now Italy is largely on its own because, according to old European rules, the country is responsible for the asylum procedure of migrants arriving there.

For years it has proved impossible to reach an agreement within the EU on new rules for the reception and redistribution of asylum seekers. The ambition is to achieve this before next year’s European elections, but it is unclear whether this will succeed.

Nieuwsuur made the video below about the under pressure of democracy in the country. To the great concern of the EU, because the African country is the main point of departure for migrants to Europe:

Crucial Tunisia is about to explode, EU is worried

And so the pressure on the European Commissioner is now extra high to do something about the large influx of people from Tunisia. The Swedish will explore the possibilities for this today and tomorrow.

She is expected to sign an agreement with Tunisia to exchange data through Europol to combat human trafficking. She is also likely to offer the country visas for people who want to come and work legally in the EU.

But President Saied has no direct interest in pleasing the EU by preventing migrants from leaving his country. Above all, he needs quick money to improve the economic situation in his country and to strengthen his own position. Whether the European Commissioner can offer that in Tunis remains to be seen.

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