Matt Herbert is a senior analyst with the Geneva-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime. He tells VOA there are several factors explaining why Tunisia is overtaking Libya as the main embarkation point to Italy. One is the rapid increase and magnitude in departures from Tunisia that greatly surpasses those from Libya, especially this year.
Italian interior ministry figures show more than 15,500 people arrived on Italian shores from Tunisia from January until the end of March in over 180 landings per day. Italian officials said it’s a 920-percent increase compared to the 1,525 arrivals in the same period last year.
As of last week, the Italian interior ministry recorded more than 75,000 migrants that had arrived by boat on Italian shores since the beginning of the year compared to about 31,900 in the same period last year.
Herbert says Tunisia’s deeply troubled economy in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring uprising, terror attacks affecting the Mediterranean country’s prime income earner, tourism, and then COVID-19 are the main factors. He says worsening economic and political situations are hitting Tunisia’s people and adding to that, African migrants are coming to the country for work.
“The continuing economic challenges have had a real impact on their bottom line. The money they have been able to earn has been drastically reduced," said Herbert. "They are facing economic difficulties staying in country and so some are leveraging the money they already have to leave. The dynamic of departures is being very closely linked to rising xenophobia.”
Herbert adds that a multi-year rise in irregular migration from Tunisia has seen a growth in human smuggling networks along the Tunisian coastline, providing more escape routes. At its nearest point, Tunisia lies approximately 130 kilometers from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
On Sunday, the European Union committed financial assistance to Tunisia in exchange for its added efforts to combat human trafficking and strengthen its border controls. The EU has already offered Tunisia more than one billion dollars in long-term aid.
Tunisian analyst Tasnim Abderrahim, a migrant policy analyst with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, debunked the “perception that North African countries are willing to do anything in exchange for money,” saying there are mitigating factors.
"Now there are concerns that Italy may be seeking to deport sub-Saharan nationals to Tunisia," she said. "The repatriation of Tunisian nationals is already happening, and Tunisia has very advanced cooperation with Italy in that sense. But the readmission of third country nationals is something that definitely Tunisians--both the government and the population—reject. There are very little incentives on the Tunisian side to engage in such form of cooperation."
Racial tensions and anti-migrant sentiment are growing in Tunisia following the death of a Tunisian man on July 3 in a fight between locals and migrants.
Observers say Tunisia does not have a legal framework to welcome migrants.