World Refugee Day – Deadlock at sea, obstacles to the right of asylum: the Tunisian case

Migration and Asylum, Statement, Tunisia

Read in:  French 

Brussels, 20 June 2019

To mark World Refugee Day, EuroMed Rights focuses on the current practice of stopping people from disembarking ships/boats on the Mediterranean Sea shoreline, particularly in Tunisia. In many aspects, this situation is emblematic of the obstacles faced by refugees in obtaining protection and access to rights in the Euro-Mediterranean region. It is also emblematic of the unfailing solidarity with refugees of local organisations and individuals.

According to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data from June 2019, fatality rates of people crossing the Mediterranean have risen from 1 in 29 in 2018, to 1 in 6 in 2019, despite a lower overall number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea compared to the same period last year. 559 people have died trying to reach Europe, 343 of which in the Central Mediterranean alone.

The explanation is found in increased criminalisation of NGOs involved in maritime rescue, the near absence of national search and rescue arrangements, increased cooperation on border management with so-called third countries, and a generalised abdication of humanitarian obligations stipulated by international law.

However, the barricading by European states of the ports of their southern neighbours, and the criminalisation of irregular migration is regularly challenged by organisations such as the Council of Europe, the “special rapporteurs” of the United Nations, and the FRONTEX’ Fundamental Rights Office.

In addition, collaboration in maritime interception procedures carried out by the Libyan coastguard –supported and equipped with European funds– bringing those who try to flee to hellish prison camps, represents a systematic violation of fundamental rights and international conventions on the law of the sea.

The outsourcing to North Africa of the enforcement of the migration policy of the EU and its Member States, together with renewed conflict in Libya, has resulted in a substantial increase in land and sea arrivals to Tunisia. From the last quarter of 2018 to this day, UNHCR has registered 1,843 people, including 1,233 refugees and 600 asylum-seekers. In Tunisia, which has no asylum law as such, the right to work of persons recognised as refugees by UNHCR is not guaranteed. No real psychological support is provided to persons in vulnerable situations. Minors, including unaccompanied minors, are deprived of their liberty in unofficial centres.

The repercussions for disembarked people, who are promised protection and inclusion in the country or subject to ‘voluntary’ return practices, are wide-ranging. Current practices can be seen as going in the direction of so-called “regional disembarkation platforms” that are being proposed to Tunisia, but constantly rejected by its government.

Four years after the biggest humanitarian emergency of people in search of protection, Tunisia finds itself accepting and playing an active role in programmes designed to strengthen border controls under the EU emergency Trust Fund for Africa, or to consolidate security partnerships and support the fight against terrorism.

The violation of the obligation to render humanitarian assistance, and States’ responsibility to intervene at sea, in addition to attempts to attribute different rights to different categories of migrants (counter to provisions of the International Human Rights Charter), has had a significant impact on how countries on the southern shore, like Tunisia, approach migration issues: adopting migration policies solely focused on border management and security, inside and outside the country.