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How Tunisia Became Europe’s Border Guard

Another crackdown is targeting Black Africans seeking to enter the EU.

Nosmot Gbadamosi
By , a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
Tunisian Maritime National Guard officials intercept tiny boats carrying migrants before towing them back to the shore of the Tunisian city of Sfax on June 23.
Tunisian Maritime National Guard officials intercept tiny boats carrying migrants before towing them back to the shore of the Tunisian city of Sfax on June 23.
Tunisian Maritime National Guard officials intercept tiny boats carrying migrants before towing them back to the shore of the Tunisian city of Sfax on June 23. Khaled Nasraoui/picture alliance via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

The highlights this week: Protests break out in Libya over slow flood response, France accuses Niger of holding diplomats hostage, Liberia proposes a controversial carbon credit deal with the UAE, and more.

Kais Saied Cracks Down on Migrants, Again

Authorities in Tunisia began their latest crackdown on migrants over the weekend, arresting hundreds of people and seizing boats in the coastal region of Sfax—a major departure point for migrants making the journey to Europe.

“The air operation is intended to target smugglers who trade in the pain of frustrated people,” National Guard Col. Houssem Jbebli told reporters.

The operation, ordered by President Kais Saied, came as the number of crossings from Tunisia to the Italian island of Lampedusa soared to record numbers. More than 8,000 migrants have arrived on Lampedusa in the past five days, which is more than the island’s population of 6,000. The majority of arrivals are fleeing fighting in Burkina Faso, Mali, Sudan, and Cameroon, as well as political and economic situations in the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Eritrea, Tunisia, and Egypt.

Overall, about 127,000 migrants have arrived in Italy so far this year, more than twice the number who arrived over the same time period in 2022. Of those, 70 percent landed via Lampedusa, according to Italian officials. Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini called the influx of migrants an “act of war.”

In July, the European Union signed an agreement with Tunisia, backed by right-wing Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, in which Saied’s government promised to block crossings and speed the returns of those who arrived illegally in Europe from Tunisia. The deal was made in exchange for 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in aid to help Tunisia’s crumbling economy. The money has yet to be disbursed. It follows a 6 billion euro ($6.4 billion) deal with Turkey, where in exchange for stopping illegal migrants, Turkish nationals would be granted visa-free travel to Europe. In 2010, the late autocratic Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi demanded $6.3 billion a year to stop immigration and avoid a “black Europe.”

Attacks on Black Africans increased in Tunisia after xenophobic remarks made by Saied in February. “Hordes of illegal immigrants” were causing crime and were part of a conspiracy to change the racial makeup of the predominately Arab North African country, he told his national security council.

In the weeks that followed, Black migrants reported being beaten, assaulted, and evicted by landlords, with some having to camp in makeshift tents outside the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration.

In the latest crackdown on Saturday, the Tunisian National Guard units raided migrant homes, intercepted trucks, and seized vessels used by smugglers. At least 2,000 Black African migrants were rounded up by Tunisian security forces and expelled to desert regions bordering Libya and Algeria, according to nongovernmental organizations.

The EU said over the weekend that it was accelerating efforts to help police the border and refit 17 Tunisian ships for search and rescue operations. EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said that “migration is a European challenge, and it needs a European answer and solution” following a visit on Sunday to Lampedusa alongside Meloni.

Yet there are consequences for the EU, especially when it strikes a deal with an authoritarian leader such as Saied. Authorities blocked members of the European Parliament from entering Tunisia last week without giving a reason for the decision. The blocked MPs had previously criticized the country’s democratic backsliding.

Last Wednesday, the EU ethics watchdog began a probe into the Tunisian deal in which the European Commission must respond by Dec. 13. The European Ombudsman wants to know how the commission will ensure that EU money is not used to commit human rights abuses. Several EU lawmakers reportedly raised concerns over the pact, according to a letter shared with the Guardian.

Doctors Without Borders has said the Tunisian deal makes the EU directly “complicit” in the deaths and abuse of migrants, as it replicates other “deadly agreements” signed with Turkey and Libya.

Last month, footage emerged showing a woman lying dead on the floor of the Abu Salim detention center in Tripoli, Libya. The woman is believed to have been from Somalia, and the video was filmed by a group that arrived in Tunisia from the Abu Salim, where dozens have contracted tuberculosis in crowded rooms while lacking access to medical care. In the video, a Nigerian woman can be heard pleading for help.

Libya was once the main transit point to Europe. But after 2017, as the EU and Italy began funding the Libyan Coast Guard, which is mostly made up of militias, stories of rape, slavery, and torture at Libyan detention centers pushed migrants to flee and look for other routes. Tunisia became the main departure point.

Despite condemnations, European governments under pressure to tackle migration continue to explore deals with authoritarian regimes, with a pact in place with Morocco and reports of a potential agreement with Egypt.

Though the risks remain high, Africans will continue to migrate because for many, opportunity in their own countries is limited. Without access to infrastructure, security, and health care, some will weigh up a likely early death at home versus the risk of dying at sea en route to a better life.

The Week Ahead

Monday, Sept. 18, to Thursday, Sept. 28: Southern Africa regional climate outlook forum held in Port Louis, Mauritius.

Tuesday, Sept. 19 to Tuesday, Sept. 26: United Nations General Assembly held in New York. Speakers include leaders from Ethiopia, Somalia, Mauritius, and Lesotho.

Wednesday, Sept. 20: South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor meets with BRICS counterparts on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly.

Thursday, Sept. 21: U.N. Human Rights Council discusses Ethiopia and Russia

Sunday, Sept. 24: Guinea-Bissau marks the 50th anniversary of independence from Portugal.

What We’re Watching

Cameroon bans newspaper. Authorities in Cameroon issued a monthlong ban on local paper the Post after images of the newspaper’s front page circulated online with the headline, “66% of Cameroonians Want a Military Coup – Afrobarometer Survey.” It was based on a survey carried out in 36 countries between 2021 and 2022 by polling firm Afrobarometer.

The data, published last week in South Africa’s the Continent, found that while most Africans disapprove of military rule, 66 percent of respondents in Cameroon, Gabon, and Burkina Faso agreed that “armed forces can intervene when elected leaders abuse power.” Although the Post replaced its front page and pulled the story before publication, authorities claimed the paper carried “information that could disrupt national cohesion and social peace.”

Cameroon’s 90-year-old President Paul Biya has held power for more than 40 years. Hours after a coup in Gabon, Biya announced a reshuffle to the country’s army, navy, and police. The Post’s ban follows a series of crackdowns on Cameroonian media outlets critical of the government.

Niger-France antagonism. France’s ambassador in Niger and other French diplomats are being held hostage by the military junta, French President Emmanuel Macron said Friday. Sylvain Itté “cannot go out,” Macron said. “He is persona non grata, and he is being refused food.” France had ignored an Aug. 25 directive issued by the junta ordering Itté to leave the country within 48 hours. The French foreign ministry said the junta had “no authority” to expel the ambassador following the ouster of President Mohamed Bazoum, a French ally.

Niger signed a security pact on Saturday with Mali and Burkina Faso, also ruled by military juntas, promising to aid each other in the event of an attack.

Libya floods. Hundreds of protesters gathered in the city of Derna on Monday, calling for an inquiry into the disaster. Estimates of the death toll from last week’s flooding in northeast Libya varied from more than 3,000 (according to the country’s ministry of health) to almost 12,000, with the number still changing as rescue teams from Qatar, Turkey, and Algeria arrived in the country. Four members of a Greek rescue team were killed in a road accident on Sunday.

Rescue workers are struggling to recover decomposing bodies, and authorities warned that there is a risk that diseases such as cholera could spread. “In some parts of the city, the stench of death is suffocating and worsens by the hour, not even leavened by the salty sea breeze. It lingers on people’s skin and in the dust,” Stefanie Glinski wrote in Foreign Policy, reporting from Derna.

All help has to be preapproved by Libya’s two parallel governments, which has slowed the aid response to the country. There has been criticism that authorities ignored warnings about the severity of the storm, which—coupled with the effects of a decadelong conflict and state neglect of critical infrastructure—contributed to the enormous death toll.

This Week in Climate

The Liberian public and opposition party members are urging the government to immediately halt a carbon credit deal in which Liberia would hand over control of nearly 10 percent of its total land mass to a United Arab Emirates-based firm for 30 years. The ongoing negotiation with Blue Carbon, a Dubai-based firm owned by Sheikh Ahmed Dalmook al-Maktoum, one of the youngest members of Dubai’s royal family, has drawn criticism from environmental organizations.

In a joint statement, several international NGOs warned that Liberia risked repeating a failed 2009 deal, in which the proposed agreement was found to be in violation of Liberian laws and government officials were charged with bribery and corruption. Locals believe that the deal would offer little benefit to Liberians and instead help foreign governments maintain their high emissions. Community representatives said the pact could override the land rights of communities living in the earmarked forests while also violating Liberian laws.

According to the draft agreement leaked to media organizations, Blue Carbon would purchase 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of forests in Liberia for carbon offsets. Carbon credits allow companies to generate higher carbon emissions by paying to preserve forests elsewhere. But a study published last month concluded carbon offset deals often overestimate likely deforestation in order to inflate claimed credits.

Researchers estimated that only 6 percent of the total carbon credit projects produced in 2020 resulted in additional carbon reductions. Blue Carbon would pay Liberia a 10 percent royalty on the gross proceeds of carbon credit sales, without any additional payments until it recoups its upfront investment. Afterward, a 30 percent share of any profits it makes from selling the credits would be paid to the Liberian government.

The firm aims to sell those credits to Gulf governments so they can offset their carbon emissions and help meet their carbon pledges under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Chart of the Week

Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) sanctions are biting landlocked Niger. The military junta has said that it will take legal action against the regional bloc after Nigeria cut electricity supplies to the country. Rolling blackouts are impacting businesses and health facilities. The sanctions without humanitarian exemptions are harsher than those imposed on Burkina Faso and Mali.

Imports from Niger’s top trade partners rely on movement through coastal ECOWAS nations, and the United Nations has said that more than 7,000 tons of food headed to Niger are stuck at borders. Niger’s main imports travel through the port of Cotonou in Benin, another ECOWAS member; meanwhile, many of its exports filter through Nigeria. Benin indicated to the World Food Programme two weeks ago that it would allow blocked humanitarian trucks passage, but negotiations were still ongoing.

What We’re Reading

Zambia’s imagined coup plotters. In African Arguments, Sishuwa Sishuwa argues that Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema’s warning to those considering a coup in the country is an excuse to increase restrictions on the civil rights of those opposed to his government—and thereby stay in power beyond the end of his term in 2026. “Zambia has no history of military rule or interference in political processes, and the last (failed) coup attempt occurred 26 years ago,” Sishuwa writes.

Graft in Malawi’s UNHCR camp. In the Platform for Investigative Journalism Malawi (PIJ), Jack McBrams reports on an alleged extortion racket involving United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) workers and government security officials defrauding refugees out of money to secure a place in Malawi’s Dzaleka Refugee Camp. One Burundian refugee told McBrams that he paid more than $1,400, while another Rwandan refugee claimed she was coerced into sex with three UNHCR officials who promised to secure resettlement for her family.

UNHCR spokesman Rumbani Msiska told the PIJ that the organization was aware of people posing as officials in the camp and claiming that they can influence the resettlement process. “Every report or allegation of fraud or corruption by UNHCR personnel or those working for our partners is thoroughly assessed and, if substantiated, results in disciplinary sanctions,” he said.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg

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