Basic Migrant boats deepen Tunisia’s political crisis

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Date: Tuesday, 04 August 2020

President Saied sees internal political attempts to exploit the problem.
Tuesday 04/08/2020
Migrants from Tunisia and Lybia arrive onboard of an Italian Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard) boat in the Italian island of Lampedusa on August 1. (AFP)
Migrants from Tunisia and Lybia arrive onboard of an Italian Guardia Costiera (Coast Guard) boat in the Italian island of Lampedusa on August 1. (AFP)

TUNIS – There has been a recent spike in illegal immigration activities towards Europe from the Tunisian coast, prompting Italy to send its Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese to Tunis to urge local authorities to fulfil their pledge to stop the waves of illegal migrants. Meanwhile, Tunisian President Kais Saied spoke of internal “political” attempts to exploit the issue of illegal migration and strike at his image, a message interpreted as aimed at the Islamist Ennahda party, deepening the political crisis in the country.

The Tunisian president emphasised the need for cooperation to eradicate illegal immigration, accusing political parties of being behind the crisis, which he described as dangerous, saying “land sharks are far more dangerous than sea sharks,” in reference to the unscrupulous operators and intermediaries in this process.

Saied pointed out during a working visit to the provinces of Sfax and Mahdia that the country’s security forces should coordinate with military forces to further address this phenomenon, but he also reaffirmed that a security-only approach remains insufficient.

He stressed that more important than a security approach is creating jobs that preserve human dignity and creating development projects that change how young people view their reality.

A woman migrant holds a cat as she boards a bus after migrants disembark from the Guardia Costiera boat in the Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa on July 29. (AP)
A woman migrant holds a cat as she boards a bus after migrants disembark from the Guardia Costiera boat in the Italian Pelagie Island of Lampedusa on July 29. (AP)

Political activist and former MP Sahbi Ben Fraj wrote on his Facebook page that Saied’s speech should be taken to mean that “some parties to the internal political conflict are trying to lure foreign sides (Italian and European) to implicate them in our affairs and send out the message that our president is unable to control matters and control the borders of his country.”

Ben Fraj added that the president’s words meant that “our youth are being used today on death boats to fuel a dirty war, and that our political crisis was starting to cross the red lines.”

Observers pointed out that the migrant crisis was a real issue regardless of political exploitation of the phenomenon, and that Tunisia may find itself in a difficult situation if the flow of migrants to Europe from Tunisian shores continues. They noted that the political crisis and the conflict between the country’s institutions has distracted Tunisia from fulfilling its various obligations locally and internationally.

According to figures provided by the Italian government, nearly half of the 11,191 migrants who arrived in Italy up to July 24 of this year, originated from Tunisia, including nearly 4,000 Tunisian citizens.

Italy’s interior ministry confirmed that North Africa’s economic crisis resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic “has fuelled an exceptional influx of migrants.” Furthermore, the pandemic has made managing the many daily arrivals of illegal migrants more complicated.

Saied’s latest criticism at some political parties, which he accused of targeting him and further confusing the country’s political scene, reveals the growing ideological and political struggle for power that has culminated with the resignation of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh over conflict of interest charges and the disintegration of the government coalition. These new political developments have brought Saied into a face-off with Ennahda (54 parliament seats), which has been trying to reposition itself in light of the growing circle of the local forces rejecting its participation in the so-called “President’s government 2.”

Political analyst Borhane Bsaies, however, believes the conspiracy discourse adopted by Saied is exaggerated and worn out, especially as he resorts to it when commenting on all issues. For him, the current and upcoming scene is going to be centred on the struggle for power and influence between Saied and Ennahda.

Bsaies told The Arab Weekly that “the conflict is between two visions of government, a vision that wants to implement its programme that is not satisfied with current party life (which is Saied’s vision), and Ennahda’s vision that has been leading the country since 2011, since that vision was encapsulated in the country’s 2014 constitution.”

“This conflict is going to take some time to be resolved and it will not bring any answers to the real issues of the Tunisian population, which are mainly related to their economic and social conditions,” he said.

These days, a conflict is raging in Tunisia between Ennahda, which fears losing its position of power and a good deal of its electoral base, and other political parties that are seeking its removal from government in order to form a new government free of “Muslim Brotherhood” presence,

Bsaies believes that “the matter has been decided already and Ennahda will not be included in the new government, nor will it be angered by that either, because the government of the Prime Minister-designate Hichem Mechichi will exclude all parties and will be a non-partisan government and will receive support from various parliamentary blocs, but this will not end the political crisis as much as postponing it.”

Of course, the ongoing political haggling has produced an economic and social crisis that has impacted all classes, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic.

The new social reality in the country, fuelled by high unemployment rates, poverty and poor development rates has led to a near total distrust and loss of confidence, especially among youth, in the political class’s discourse and its ways of dealing with the country’s crises, notably the social protests and waves of illegal immigration towards Europe.

Just in the past few weeks, Tunisian security authorities thwarted several attempts by migrants to illegally cross the Mediterranean to Europe, but other migrant-loaded boats managed to reach the Italian coast.

Romdhane Ben Amor, media and communication officer at the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, an independent non-governmental organisation, confirmed that “5,641 immigrants have reached their destinations in the period between January 1 and July 31, 2020, in addition to 491 aborted operations and 6,885 thwarted attempts by would-be migrants to cross the sea to the Italian coast.”

Ben Amor added in a statement to The Arab Weekly that “attempts at illegal crossings towards Europe reached their peak during the month of July, when 245 operations were thwarted. He said the phenomenon was due to “the weakness of state institutions and the collapse of their daily services.”

The Tunisian coast is the starting point for tens of thousands of illegal immigrants, Tunisians and Africans, who dream of a better life in Europe.

Many migrants post videos on social media documenting their sea crossings and usually include complaints about unemployment, poverty and poor health services in Tunisia.

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