How coronavirus has worsened the plight of refugees in Tunisia


In the shadows of the Covid-19-crisis, refugees and irregular migrants in Europe’s neighbouring countries are afraid for their very existence and terrified of long-term detention in reception camps. In Tunisia, political provisions are being put into place and emergency plans negotiated to deal with migrants and refugees on their way to Europe.

In the coronavirus crisis, the media spotlight is currently on the industrial countries of the West. But on the fringes of the European Union (EU), North African states are fighting the pandemic and its serious consequences to the economy. Tunisia reacted surprisingly quickly and decisively to the spread of the virus: many restaurants and cafes were required to close their doors as soon as the first coronavirus cases were reported in the capital city of Tunis. When air traffic in Tunisia was grounded, many hotels closed for want of tourists. Consequently, major sources of income from the gastronomy and tourism sectors have dried up indefinitely. This is particularly difficult for migrants and refugees, who were already living under extremely precarious conditions and do not qualify for state furlough payments.

It is not always possible to tell who is a refugee 

Almost two thirds of the estimated 75,000 migrants living in Tunisia are from sub-Saharan African countries [1]. In addition, there are over 4500 asylum seekers residing in Tunisia, most of whom (38.3%) fled Syria. Many of these people either entered Tunisia illegally over the Libyan or Algerian border or became irregular migrants after their official residence permits expired (mostly after three months). As the causes of flight and realities of people’s migration are often complex, it is not always easy to tell the difference between refugees and migrants.

In the specific context of Tunisia, the question arises as to whether a migrant worker from Niger, for instance, who was working casually in Libya and fled for his life to Tunisia following the civil war, would now be classified by the authorities as a migrant or a refugee. The terms flight and migration are often confused with each other in political discourse, sometimes deliberately. This makes it even harder to enforce the rights of refugees and asylum procedures can drag on for months.

What do migrants and refugees do now?

Although the Tunisian constitution of 2014 acknowledges the right to asylum, a draft organic law to this effect has been on hold since 2016. The responsibility for processing asylum claims therefore lies with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Until the status of refugees is clarified, they cannot register their place of residence or be issued a work permit. This means that formal employment on the job market is impossible for both irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Instead, they make ends meet by working as day labourers, cooks in restaurants, construction site workers or cleaners in hotels. If there is no demand for extra workers, as is the case in the current crisis, then they have no way to make a living. Many fear that they will no longer be able to pay their rent and will end up on the streets.

And if they speak no Arabic, as is true of many people from sub-Saharan Africa, they run the additional risk of not being able to keep up to date on developments or understand, and hence comply with, the instructions of the Tunisian health authorities. Due to concerns of being reported to the authorities, many irregular migrants were afraid to visit a doctor even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Racism and stigmatisation in the event of contracting coronavirus and the threat of punitive measures such as fines, imprisonment or even deportation if they are caught by the police mean that even now, many people from sub-Saharan Africa simply do not dare to seek medical treatment.

All of this increases the fear of catching the virus. The cramped conditions in which many migrants and refugees in Tunisia live allow the virus to spread like wildfire. In the “Al Wardia Reception and Orientation Centre” – an institution that, outwardly, is supposed to take care of the concerns of irregular migrants, but is actually a deportation camp – a couple of dozen detained migrants recently went on hunger strike to protest for better protection against the virus.

Civil society provides some relief 

As has so often been the case in the recent history of Tunisian democracy, civil society is taking responsibility for humanitarian relief during this crisis. Just a few days after lockdown was ordered, statements of solidarity with migrants and refugees from spread on social networks. In districts in which many of them live, donations were collected and citizens’ initiatives and non-government organisations (NGOs) distributed food and aid supplies to people in need.

It took public calls on politicians by several refugee and human rights organisations  to prompt the government to extend all valid residence permits of foreigners residing in Tunisia until the end of the crisis and to suspend penalties in the event of overstaying the authorised duration of stay. Until the end of the crisis at least, therefore, migrants and refugees in need not worry about prosecution. A political response that also sets out structural solutions to the precarious situations in which refugees and migrants live in Tunisia, however, will take a lot longer.

Despite attempts to seal itself off, migration to the EU will increase again 

There are currently many indications that the situation for migrants in Tunisia will get even worse. The EU andits policy of externalizing its borders bears much of the responsibility for this. Already by mid 2019, 1,008 migrants had entered Tunisia irregularly via the Libyan border, which is twice as many as for the whole of the previous year.

Given the escalation of the conflict in Libya in recent weeks, it must be assumed that migration to Tunisia will increase even more in the near future. Some irregular migrants who are picked up by the police upon arrival in Tunisia end up in detention camps or are pushed back to Algeria or Libya. Yet most of the new arrivals see Tunisia only as the last stop on the way to Europe, which is why this is such a worry to the EU.

In the years following the revolution of 2011, it was almost exclusively young Tunisians who risked the crossing to Europe, because of their lack of prospects. But recently, the number of foreign migrants and refugees setting off from the Tunisian coast has risen. Between 2018 and 2019, the share of non-Tunisians picked up in boats heading for Europe grew from 11% to 33%. This development is predicted to increase further. If tourism remains on hold for much longer, some fishermen and seasonal workers who are dependent on foreign currency could be tempted to trade on the aspirations of these people and try their luck as people smugglers.

On life support from the EU: Tunisia’s dependence is growing in the crisis 

The result is that the EU will ramp up the political pressure on Tunisia, especially if, due to the escalating war, Libya ceases all efforts to turn back migrants for the EU. The cynical attempts of Libya, a country at war with itself and in which migrants are raped and tortured, to position itself as a “trusted partner” of the EU were doomed to failure from the outset.

Consequently, Tunisia will become an even greater focus of European foreign policy. Up to now, Tunisia has been able to resist being brought too closely into EU migration policy. But once the economic consequences of the pandemic really start to bite and the social pressure increases, Tunisia will lose all political leverage. According to economic forecasts, the country will this year be plunged into the deepest recession since its independence in 1956. This will lead to a spike in the already high unemployment rate. Tunisia is dependent on financial life support from the EU, which was the largest multilateral donor to the small country last year. The Tunisian government cannot afford to gamble its massive European support, particularly during a crisis.

Human rights organisations are keeping a close eye on what is going on near the Libyan border in the deserts of southern Tunisia. In Bir Fatnassia, just 27 km from the city of Remada, a refugee camp is being built, with a capacity of between 25,000 and 50,000. Officially, it is to offer “temporary” accommodation to refugees who have fled Libya because of the war in the country. According to media reports, UNHCR, the International Organisation for Migration, the United Nations Children’s Fund UNICEF and the World Health Organisation have been involved in planning the refugee camp.

These extensive preparations have led Tunisian civil society to fear that this emergency plan will eventually evolve into a “disembarkation platform” of European design and refugees could be in for a long stay in this camp, i.e. until their status and future are clarified. In practical terms, there is a military airport near to Ramada. The European Council already proposed the idea of similar platforms in late 2018; in addition to Morocco and Algeria, Tunisia was also discussed as a potential organiser of one such “hotspot”.

The coronavirus crisis could breathe new political life into this proposal. Since the quarantine restrictions came into force, there have been no vessels in the Mediterranean to carry out rescues at sea. The closure of the internal borders makes onward travel within the EU impossible, meaning that migrants and refugees have no choice but to wait. The case of Malta, which pushed a boat in distress at sea back to Libya on the grounds of the “extraordinary burden placed on the national health service”, illustrates how this crisis is already being used by countries to wash their hands of their humanitarian responsibility. Compared to this intentional policy of increasing the dangers to refugees and migrants trying to enter the EU irregularly, the construction of camps in North Africa almost looks like a rational alternative.

Needs and aspirations do not disappear because of coronavirus 

Restrictions on freedom and mobility,  building massive camps for refugees, increased border controls and the suspension of state and private search and rescue operations will not deter people from trying to escape war and political persecution or, quite simply, to seek a better life elsewhere.

This is currently borne out on the Greek island of Lesbos which, like Libya and Tunisia, is much less in the European public eye. There are still people waiting on the North African coast for their chance to reach Europe. These people should not be left behind during the crisis. Civil society in Tunisia, Italy or Greece continues to point out that refugees and migrants deserve our protection. 

Short-term humanitarian assistance in times of crisis is not enough and pushing problems onto other countries is irresponsible. The EU must work with its partners to develop migration policy prospects and ensure that asylum seekers continue to receive protection. This must include opportunities to migrate to the EU legally, not based solely on the needs of the European employment market, but including quotas of politically persecuted people and refugees from countries at war or in crisis. The consequence of coronavirus should not reduce our perspective to the purely national level. The EU must look to its external borders. This is not just an obligation arising from the values of the EU, but it is also the only way to give people long-term prospects.

The article has first been published on Translation by Alison Frankland.

[1] Faten Mskeni: “Des pays de l’Afrique Sub-saharienne à la Tunisie: Etude quantitative pour les conditions des migrants en Tunisie, les aspects généraux, les trajectoires et les aspirations” (in Arabic); FTDES 2019a