Valentina Grillo (University of Vienna; ROR-n)
In the last years, the European Union (EU) has pursued a geopolitical strategy that, as far as migration is concerned, has had serious impacts in its neighbouring countries. In the frame of the EU’s foreign policy, North Africa is one of the three areas of interest. This contribution highlights European migration policies, and the making and maintenance of European external borders through the example of Tunisia. In particular, it engages the following questions: what do the external borders mean for the EU and what are their impacts for refugees in Tunisia?
Following EU’s interest in curbing forced migration into Europe, in March 2014 Tunisia signed the Mobility Partnership (MP) agreement with the EU. Before committing to the partnership, Tunisia had already signed the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. Moreover, regional instruments provided protection for asylum seekers and refugees, as well: Tunisia had signed the Convention Governing Specific Aspects of the Refugees Problems in Africa (the OAU Convention) that extends the notion of refuge to situations of civil war. It was against this background that, on March 3, 2014, international organizations and the EU committed themselves to develop a more comprehensive asylum system in Tunisia. Among the measures, the MP outlined a mutual intervention in migration in Tunisia through six sections. While the focus of the agreement is in training local authorities to identify those who are able to benefit from international protection and to process their asylum requests, the notion of providing refuge appears to be reduced to the ability to identify refugees. Furthermore, only the first article of the fourth section (art. 24) highlights the necessity to develop national laws concerning asylum in conformity with the 1951 Geneva Convention, and its 1967 Protocol and overall fundamental principles – i.e., non-refoulement (art. 25).
Tunisia has around 1,000 refugees coming mainly from Sudan, Somalia, Eritrea and Libya. Around 10% of them live in the southern regions of the country, such as in Medenine, Tataouine and Ben Gardene. The lack of an internal organ recognizing refugees and, on the whole, of a national legal system, largely constrains the refugees’ lives. For instance, refugees are not allowed to sign any kind of legal contract because by law they are not recognized as Tunisian subjects, and therefore they are not officially allowed to work. Besides, no local or international institution supports them financially.
Refugees in Tunisia live in harsh conditions and only very few told me they expect anything from the asylum system. Ahmad[i], for example, is a novel writer and comes from Sudan. He describes himself as an activist for human rights, for which his life was put under serious risk in Sudan. Due to his political activism, after the explosion of the Libyan Revolution in February 2011, he had to escape along with his family and had no other choice but to take shelter in Tunisia. Like Ahmad, other asylum seekers and refugees I interviewed think of Tunisia only as a transit country. However, only a few refugees still consider to "have the chance" to be resettled in a third country.
Resettlement in a third country has been granted to 2,409 refugees from Choucha refugee camp[ii]. In 2013, nevertheless, the emergency situation in Libya ceased to be the focal point in the international scenario and probably for this reason, as a Tunisian stakeholder argued during an interview, resettlement in third countries sharply decreased. Authorities still proclaimed the necessity to develop sustainable human mobility strategies, which lead to the signing of the MP. Nevertheless, no legal improvement has been made so far in the country. As Ahmed underlined several times, the ‘inhuman’ conditions of refugees’ lives and the lack of a way to legally leave Tunisia bring refugees to a dead-end: if they cannot stand the living conditions in Tunisia - that he metaphorically addressed as the ‘desert’ - refugees have no other choice apart from crossing the Mediterranean Sea with makeshift boats and by any other precarious means.
So, is it possible to keep refugees in Tunisia, where – despite the presence of international actors – there is no formal system of protection and refugees find themselves living in dire conditions? According to its mandate, the UNHCR could expand its competences, and since 2011 it has remained the only accredited organ issuing refugee mandate statuses in the country. According to UNHCR Statute, General Assembly and ECOSOC resolutions, mandate refugees are: refugees within the meaning of the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, and those who “come under the extended refugee definition within UNHCR’s mandate because they are outside their country of origin or habitual residence and unable or unwilling to return there owing to serious and indiscriminate threats to life, physical integrity or freedom resulting from generalized violence or events seriously disturbing public order and who, as a result, require international protection” (UNHCR 2011). The UNHCR’s international protection mandate covers the group of persons who might be refugees as defined in regional refuge instruments. UNHCR conducts Refugee Status Determination (RSD) procedures on the basis of the 1951 Convention, the 1967 Protocol, and, in particular, article 35 of the Convention. With concern to article 35, states “undertake to cooperate with UNHCR in the exercise of its functions; and shall in particular facilitate its duty of supervising the application of the provisions of the Convention”. Signatory members of the 1951 Convention and its 1967 Protocol, are bound by agreement to accept UNHCR’s authority in providing refuge and to cooperate with them. Even in Tunisia, despite the absence of a national asylum system dealing directly with RSD procedures, the UNHCR is able to issue refugee mandate statuses.
Since 2014, UNHCR offices throughout North Africa have witnessed an increased number of asylum seekers (UNHCR 2016). At first sight, many could interpret this figure as the result of many asylum seekers wanting to stay in the region. However, the asylum seekers’ and refugees’ difficult living conditions in Tunisia discredit such hypothesis. The fact that refugees are not formally recognized by Tunisian authorities makes both refugees and the difficulties they face often invisible. For instance, Mohamed’s experience brings evidence to this point. Mohamed is a 33 years old Sudanese refugee and used to travel from Ben Gardene to Djerba, where he used to work. Once, on the way back to Ben Gardene, he was stopped for a control. Police brought him to prison and refused to recognize the document that, issued by UNHCR, certified his refugee mandate status. When he finally mentioned that he was coming from the Choucha refugee camp, he was released. The precarious condition of refugees in Tunisia does not enable them to settle permanently in this country. Moreover, it leads to complications in fundamental spheres of everyday life, like the job market. Yakub, a 23 years old refugee from the Darfur region, for example, reports having been seriously injured at his boss’ command after having complained to him about not having been paid. Yakub was employed irregularly because refugees are not entitled to be part of regular contracts in Tunisia, thus no legal contract could have protected him from exploitation.
While the UNHCR started issuing refugee mandate statuses in the country, the EU has not yet put forward any measures in order to develop substantial legal frameworks. But even the UN mandate is limited. While it financially supports refugees only in the north, it has no budget to take care of the refugees in the south. Since the Tunisian government does not cover any costs related to refugees anywhere in the country, this gap is covered by many international organizations, institutions or NGOs, but refugees still face ever-growing challenges to cover basic costs, such as food, health care and shelter.
In conclusion, the political objective promoted by the EU through the MP, that is, keeping refugees in Tunisia, is achieving its aims without the development of an efficacious protection system. At this point, one could argue that the MP’s main objective is not the protection of refugees, but the protection of Europe against refugees. In this scenario, external borders have the role of fortifying the European migration apparatus that objectifies migration into categories in order to control and harmonize its management (Feldman 2011). Border management becomes sealing off borders, instead of providing refuge and protection of human rights. Indeed, if the development of a national system of protection is the first step in order to provide refuge as it has been occasionally defended (UNHCR 2001), one can definitively affirm that no protection is provided to refugees living in Tunisia.
[i] Every individual mentioned in this text was given a fictitious name, so as to protect my interlocutors’ integrity.
[ii] Choucha refugee camp was established in March 2011 in southern Tunisia in order to shelter 4,000 refugees fleeing Libya. It was officially closed in June 2013.