Concerns are increasing in Brussels over the July migration pact agreed between the European Union and Tunisia with analysts saying European aid is increasingly being used to prop up authoritarian and autocratic leaders in North Africa.
The EU Ombudsman’s office asked the European Commission how it intends to monitor the rights of those affected and what assessment was made of its impact on rights before its signing.
The deal will see the EU give Tunisia 100 million euros ($106.6m) to combat undocumented immigration.
However, the agreement with Tunisia, pitched at the time as a breakthrough in the bloc’s dealings with irregular migration, has instead benefited leaders who actively restrict their citizens’ rights in return for the promise of energy deals and draconian, and frequently violent restrictions, on refugees and migrants, analysts say.
“Look at the facts,” Amine Ghali, director of the Al-Kawakibi Democracy Transition Center in Tunis said. “People across the region are struggling more now than they have in the last 20 years. Their leaders and governments have contributed nothing to their social and economic welfare.”
The evidence from rights bodies is damning. Reports from Human Rights Watch point to Egypt, currently struggling to implement the reforms mandated by its latest International Monetary Fund bailout, maintaining an authoritarian regime where forced disappearances and torture remain commonplace.
In Algeria, after the COVID-19 pandemic ended mass anti-government protests that erupted in 2019, a crackdown on rights is well under way. Journalists, lawyers and rights defenders, as well as their families, have all been targeted by state apparatus.
In Morocco, rights groups point to the routine harassment of activists, with the state making regular use of the country’s penal code to imprison its critics.
In Libya, wracked by chaos since its 2011 revolution, warring militias exert control over the lives of its citizens, while in Tunisia – seen as the success story of the Arab Spring – President Kais Saied has reversed many of the gains made since the revolution that overthrew former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Lack of freedom
There appears to have been a change in the perspective since 2011 when European leaders appeared to accept that post-policy had been overly reliant on maintaining stability.
“In 2011, there was this kind of mea culpa,” Ghali said. “Europe admitted to its mistakes and seemed intent on creating this sense of a new era, of embedding democracy and rights across the region… Now it’s only about security and stability.”
According to ARTICLE 19, a human rights advocacy group, North African societies are among the world’s most restrictive when it comes to freedom.
Nevertheless, the EU continues to help sustain governments through energy deals and aid in return for their help in stopping the flow of refugees and migrants.
“There’s an increasing dichotomy emerging between ‘say’ and ‘do’ in Europe’s relations with North Africa,” David Diaz-Jogeix, ARTICLE 19’s senior director of programmes said. “While the EU can talk about its values, for North Africa it’s just about stopping migration. Essentially, through aid and energy deals, the EU is giving the region’s leaders permission to do what they want.
“By dealing with them in this way, the EU is giving their leaders legitimacy. They’re normalising their rule,” Diaz-Jogeix concluded.
Earlier this year, in the face of mounting international concern over widespread violence being experienced by Black sub-Saharan asylum seekers and refugees as a result of a speech given by the Tunisian president in February, the EU handed over millions in aid, with the promise of more, if terms could first be agreed with the IMF.
Authorities in Libya have been accused by rights groups of complicity in the systematic abuse and torture of refugees and migrants. According to Amnesty International, thousands are subject to arbitrary detention by various militias, armed groups and security forces.
In Algeria, with its rich energy resources, the EU and Italy have already been active in shoring up their presence while turning a blind eye to the demands of former pro-democracy protesters, many now languishing in jail.
Sources within the EU have been quoted as saying both Morocco and Egypt are in the bloc’s sights for an expansion of the Tunisia deal.
Nevertheless, EU states find themselves experiencing an unprecedented cost of living crisis, with individual households making the very real choice between heating and eating.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also placed an intense strain upon the EU’s energy strategy with energy resources in Africa now, quite literally, a matter of life and death for many.
That European attitudes to North Africa have undergone a dramatic shift is true, but so too has the character of the EU.
“The influx of millions of people during the migration crisis of 2015 really changed everything,” Susi Dennison of the European Council on Foreign Relations said.
At that time, more than one million predominantly Syrian refugees fled to Europe, accentuating lingering resentment towards immigration within the bloc and appearing to justify the claims of the far-right that Europe’s way of life was under threat.
“After that, the EU shifted to viewing its foreign policy more pragmatically,” Dennison said. “The idea was to deliver aid on a quid pro quo basis. That is, aid would be delivered in return for democratic reform,” she said of Europe’s early attempts to help improve the lives of many within the countries where refugees and migrants were coming from.
“However, more and more, controls on migration and energy deals have come to take precedence over democracy and rights as consideration for EU aid,” she added.
Politically, far-right governments have already taken power in many of Europe’s member states, not least in Italy, where the hardline Georgio Meloni serves as prime minister.
“Across Europe, we’re seeing the nature of human rights and who is entitled to them being debated and redefined. This is especially true of Georgio Meloni, who seems to fixate on what she calls legal migration in return for aid and energy. There’s no real place in that conversation for refugees or asylum seekers,” Dennison told Al Jazeera.
“Her views, which we’d previously have called far-right, are finding ground across Europe as, at least the more relevant parts of her vision each finds its audience with different European leaders, depending upon their need,” she said.
The European Commission, for its part, insists that its migration policies are devised in conjunction with a variety of NGOs and the UNHCR.
“[The migration pact] aims at creating a fairer, efficient, and more sustainable migration and asylum process for the European Union,” an EU spokesperson said. “It is designed to manage and normalise migration for the long term, providing certainty, clarity and decent conditions for people arriving in the EU. It also seeks to establish a common approach to migration and asylum that is based on solidarity, responsibility, and respect for human rights.”
However, this will do little to placate the hungry and the desperate who continue to undertake weeks-long journeys across Africa for the chance of new lives, or just survival, in Europe.
More than 170,000 have crossed irregularly into the continent this year, according to the United Nations. Around 2,700, that we know of, have died in the attempt. The true number is likely much higher.
Very few have probably given much thought to Europe’s politics.