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Expanding the fortress: Europe’s new migration model

Rome’s international summit on migration, held a week ago, paves the way for closer cooperation in the Euro-Mediterranean region, sanctioning a blueprint of cash for migration control with no concern for human rights.

The first Development and Migration Conference on 23 July, hastily organised by Italy’s far-right PM Giorgia Meloni and bringing together leaders from Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, produced an agreement to counter irregular flows of migrants to Europe and tackle the issue upstream through cooperation and investments.

The Italian prime minister proposed four main themes for future cooperation between nations from both northern and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the Middle East and the European Union: fighting criminal organisations trafficking migrants, better managing migratory flows, supporting refugees, and helping countries of origin.

Participants included representatives of Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Egypt, and Niger as well as from Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

The conference came a week after Tunisia and the EU signed a “strategic partnership” deal that included cracking down on smugglers and tightening borders. It laid the foundations for a fund to finance investment projects and support border control for several years and essentially extends the EU-backed deal with Tunisia to stem irregular migration.

The summit would be followed by a donors’ conference, with states like the UAE already pledging to provide 100 million euros in aid to support development initiatives in countries from which migrants come or transit.

No conditionality on human rights was attached to the release of funds envisaged by the multilateral agreement. Nor were the widely documented violations against black African migrants by Tunisian authorities discussed, despite the conference taking place against the backdrop of migrants being pushed back to the Libyan border.

Shocking images of people abandoned in the desert after being expelled from Tunisia have circulated widely since early July.

Claudio Francavilla, Human Rights Watch’s Senior EU Advocate, emphasised that there are no human rights-related conditions spelled out in the agreement, noting that it proves Europe’s lack of concern for ongoing violations against refugees and migrants, which will likely lead to “more abuses” with the union’s complicity.

“The EU has completely abdicated human rights obligations. The paradigm is to keep migrants out of sight, making sure they don’t come to Europe at any cost,” HRW’s EU advocate told The New Arab.

The new EU-Tunisia memorandum of understanding, which the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen praised as “a template” for EU partnerships with other countries in the region, vows one billion euros in direct European aid to help restart Tunisia’s battered economy, and 100 million euros to prevent the departure of migrant boats and fight human traffickers.

The accord also provides for more Tunisians who arrive illegally to be repatriated, and for sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia to be sent back to their countries of origin.

Former Tunisian MP Imen Ben Mohamed argued that the support shown by the EU, especially Italy, toward the North African state over the recent period “gives legitimacy” to President Kais Saied’s state policies, including the handling of the migration question without care for migrant rights.

“Human rights discourse is a tool the EU uses as and when it’s convenient”, the ex-parliamentarian told TNA, denouncing the bloc’s failure to firmly condemn the deportations of black migrants from Tunisia and border violence.

She observed that all conditionality of economic assistance to Tunisia on democracy and rights, which the EU was always careful to require during the country’s post-2011 democratic transition, is totally “absent” today.

The “model of partnership” with North African countries that Giorgia Meloni boasted about boils down to the EU’s offer of financial assistance to Tunisia for keeping migrants and asylum seekers away from European shores. It is a partnership based on curbing migrants’ arrivals toward Europe, whatever it takes, that does not contemplate respect for human rights.

European leaders seem ready to export this self-interested model to other countries across the Mediterranean, namely Egypt and Morocco. That translates to pushing the EU’s borders further out while pumping cash into third states to outsource Europe’s responsibility to manage migration. It also means shoring up support for autocratic regimes in those countries, allowing them to stop the flow of migrants however they deem ‘okay’, with grave human rights implications.

That will result in protracting already failed, inhumane migration policies, and show that the EU blatantly accepts repressive practices of third partner countries, making itself once more complicit.

On the same day of the migration summit attended by world leaders, a counter-summit was held by activists and refugees from various African countries in Rome under the slogan ‘No agreement on our bodies’.

“We organised our own counter summit which tells the truth and realities that are being omitted and propagandised by greedy and murderous politicians in the pretext of developmental agreements and migration,” tweeted Refugees in Libya, which co-organised the initiative.

Francavilla remarked that striking similar deals with authoritarian rulers across the MENA region only emboldens them, sending a harmful message. “The EU is fine with these rulers, it doesn’t matter that they destroy the rule of law, repress their people, or carry out crimes against humanity,” he said, “as long as they keep migrants out, they’re ready to pump money”.

The HRW staffer pointed out that the strategy is starkly contrary to what the EU should do: promoting human rights outside its borders through its policies. “There’s a growing influence of the far right in the EU migration agenda, and the union’s leadership is blessing that”, he said, raising concerns about the tacit acceptance of Italy’s migration modus operandi by the mostly silent progressive voices within the EU.

Aiding anti-democratic governments in the enlarged Mediterranean through economic development in the name of the fight against human trafficking appears to be the EU’s course of action to justify new steps in its border externalisation policy.

For the leadership in the bloc, cooperation with partners entails that these countries should act as gatekeepers for migrants to prevent them from reaching Europe at any cost. As such, development aid is being used as a bargaining chip to achieve short-sighted migration control goals.

Italy and the European Commission have stepped up engagement with Tunisia, the main point of departure for thousands of migrants attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, and openly signalled they want the accord to be a new model of cooperation between states.

However, some EU member states like Spain, France, and Germany, which clashed with Italy last year over immigration, did not attend the migration summit, which could weaken Meloni’s new plan agreed in Rome.

For Ben Mohamed, the absence of certain member states may indicate that not all of them endorse the EU’s trend of pursuing anti-migrant policies in partnership with Tunisia and other African nations. It may as well imply, in her view, that some European countries would rather let Italy alone manage the controversial migration file.

Besides that, she warned against the EU’s apparently unconditional support to the Tunisian government. “If Europe continues to back Kais Saied without setting clear conditions for the restoration of democracy, upholding human rights, and the enactment of economic reforms, it means it has failed,” the ex-legislator asserted.

She thinks the “Rome Process” spearheaded by PM Meloni is merely a short-term “electoral strategy” that won’t resolve the migration issue or help Tunisia or other African countries affected by irregular migration from an economic viewpoint.

Leading a far right-wing coalition elected last year, the Italian premier has tried to clamp down on humanitarian ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean but has so far failed in her plans to stem migrant disembarkations in Italy. Instead, her government has seen a surge in coastal arrivals, with over 80,000 people coming ashore since January, compared to some 33,000 in the same period in 2022.

Based on UN figures, more than 100,000 migrants arrived by sea in Europe in the first six months of 2023, while over 2,000 died or went missing in the Mediterranean.

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