Latest News, MEIG Highlights 3 avril 2023

Highlight 13/2023 – A win-win approach is the only way to curb illegal migration from Tunisia to EU

Imed Methnani, 3 April 2023

Illegal migration of 70 km from Tunisia to the northern shores of the Mediterranean, mainly to Italy reached its peak in 2011 when former President Ben Ali was toppled by a devastating revolution contesting the tough socio-economic conditions that suffocated the population of 11 million.  In that year, around 20000 Tunisians decided to pay approximately 600 euro to cross the Mediterranean, hoping to secure a better future for themselves and their families.

To tackle illegal flows of migrants from Tunisia, the European Union (EU) set up different legal and financial frameworks imposing conditionalities.

The first conditionality mechanism came about through the EU-Tunisia Mobility Partnership agreement, signed in 2014 between Tunisia and the EU. The agreement established “selective immigration, of opening up new channels of labour migration for Tunisia in response to the needs identified by the EU Member States”. In this regard, Ms Malmström in the margins of the Home Affairs Council in Brussels said, after the ratification of this agreement: “This Mobility Partnership aims to facilitate the movement of people between the EU and Tunisia and to promote a common and responsible management of existing migratory flows, including by simplifying procedures for granting visas”. According to the same agreement: ‘The EU will also support the Tunisian authorities in their efforts in the field of asylum, with a view to establishing a system for protecting refugees and asylum-seekers. Through this Partnership, the EU and Tunisia will not only develop their bilateral relations in the fields of migration, mobility and security, but will cooperate together to better meet the challenges faced in the Mediterranean’. Although the EU put so much pressure on Tunisia when implementing this agreement, it was clear during the years that followed that the deal was not a success, because, the incentives it contained “remained below the expectations of Tunisia” and its conditions led to a balance of power in the EU’s favour.

Many NGOs and commentators criticized this agreement and called for a win-win agreement between the two sides. A win-win agreement was considered as one that would be beneficial to the EU as well as Tunisia, where both sides needs are met through a mutually beneficial partnership. Hence, the EU commission adopted the New Migration and Asylum Pact (European Commission, 2020) and “a core element of the new Pact is the concept of mutually beneficial partnerships with key third countries of origin and transit, which are meant to be comprehensive, balanced and tailor-made and to cover relevant aspects of migration and forced displacement”. According to this new agreement, the partnership should take into account the two sides interests and common priorities, knowing that these may differ on occasion or even be at odds. Yet, the rationale of the Pact was obviously based on returns and readmissions which is an EU priority and neglected Tunisia’s needs and interests. Furthermore, during the implementation of the Pact, the Tunisian authorities expressed “interest in a comprehensive approach to migration issues, encompassing not only security aspects, but also the possibility of developing further legal migration channels as a response to their young people’s needs, whilst addressing demographic challenges in Europe”.

This EU oriented conditionality agreement encompassed a range of policy tools such as development cooperation, security, visa, trade, investment, and employment which all were in favor of the EU’s interest and priorities.

Similarly, the Global Europe: Neighborhood, Development and International Cooperation Instrument (NDICI) advancing the ‘EU’s new external action instrument for 2021-2027, provides that indicatively 10% of the budget for the Southern Neighbourhood shall be dedicated to rewarding progress in a series of thematic areas, including migration cooperation’. Once again the rationale aimed to put pressure on Tunisia, increasing expectations without offering effective solutions to the socioeconomic problems that underpins the increasing number of Tunisians willing to undertake the perilous journey through the Mediterranean.

With the ongoing flows of migrants increasing due to the degrading socio-economic living conditions, exacerbated post Covid-19 and by the increases in food and fuel prices caused by the Russian war in Ukraine, it is time for the EU to think seriously about a real win-win mutually beneficial approach with Tunisia. The first step is to uphaul its Eurocentric and transactional approach and avoid placing migration too high on the agenda, so long as it is not a high priority for Tunisia.

Top priorities of Tunisia now are creating new jobs, securing its basic staples and meeting its energy needs, in addition to debt relief. EU, has a historical opportunity to prove that it is there for its neighbours when needed and might be able to make a win win deal with Tunisia that results in zero boats crossing the Mediterranean for a better living. Creating the conditions for better living in Tunisia would be the first step to suppress the need for illegal migration. By promoting european Foreign Direct Investments, delocalizing businesses in Tunisia, assisting Tunisia in recovering 13 billion dollars stolen by the Ben Ali family, €59 million of which are frozen in Switzerland, in addition to assisting the actual Ms. Bouden Government in fighting corruption. Once back on track to recovery, the Tunisian economy would be a pull factor to Tunisian illegal migrants to voluntarily return to Tunisia to go through reintegration processes and Tunisa will be able to absorb all the unemployed labor force in addition to regular migrants in Tunisia.

Imed Methnani, Highlight 13/2023 – A win-win approach is the only way to curb illegal migration from Tunisia to EU, 3 April 2023, available at

The views expressed in the MEIG Highlights are personal to the authors and neither reflect the positions of the MEIG Programme nor those of the University of Geneva.


Stay connected and do not miss our latest news and events: subscribe to our MEIG newsletter