Will Europe's Door Open for Tunisia: How Many Deaths will it Take?

Feb
19

As the consequences of recent political uprising; civil unrest, instability and lack of state security continues to threaten civil life in Tunisia, Italy has called upon EU and Frontex to secure its borders from those who seek to escape from these fearful conditions.

People fleeing Tunisia have mainly arrived at the Sicilian Islands, with Lampedusa receiving 5031 migrants in the first 12 days of January, according to figures provided by Italian authorities. Figures of 4000-5000 from the beginning of January until present are widely reported by the media and NGOs. Italy, underlining that this is not simply a national problem but that of the EU has called for the European community to tackle the crisis, what Interior Minister Maroni has referred to as a "biblical exodus".

Italy has counted 116 boats arriving on its shores, but many more fail to dock safely. So far UNITED is aware of 6 reported deaths occurring as a result of shipwrecks on perilous journeys from Tunisia, 31 bodies still missing and this amount is expected to rise dramatically over the coming days. On February 11, Tunisian coastguards on the vessel ironically named "Liberte 302" were witnessed deliberately ramming a boat carrying 120 passengers until it split in half - the corpses of 5 migrants have been retrieved so far, with dozens still unaccounted for.

The critical state of Tunisia over recent weeks is undisputable. Since former autocratic President Ben Ali was forced out of office by mass protests in January, strikes and a lack of policing and security have ensued, causing many to fear for their lives and safety. Traffickers have played on the vulnerability and instability of Tunisian society to line their pockets. The obvious disregard for these conditions, and blind concern for European borders is obvious. Maroni's inflammatory and provocative comments claiming that escaped criminals and "figures from terrorist organisations" are posing as asylum seekers are unacceptable, and his desire to "block the flux" from an "exploding" Maghreb clearly illustrates an intention to exploit and manipulate fears that exist in Europe about immigration.

With the recently announced intervention of Frontex to start momentarily, this is yet another example of the EU's superficial solution in the face of a humanitarian crisis, as is currently being seen in Greece; the protection and reinforcement of European borders against the most vulnerable. Furthermore, mounting pressure on Tunisian authorities is leading to reckless forms of policing, such as the fatal act of its coastguards.

Over the years, the all too regular deaths of migrants at the coasts of Lampedusa have cast a dark shadow over the island; in June 2003 over 200 died on an overloaded boat and since 1993, 857 fatalities have been recorded in the UNITED List of Deaths. Umberto Bossi, serving Italian Minister for Institutional Reforms and Devolution, refused to express regret for the 200 lives lost. To avoid the repetition of past tragedies, UNITED calls for the Italian government and EU agencies handling the arrival of migrants to ensure their humane and proper treatment, access to the asylum system and international protection where appropriate in line with PACE's resolution 1637; "Europe's boat people: mixed migration flows by sea into southern Europe". In accordance, other EU member states must acknowledge their role in sharing the responsibility; France's statement that they would only accept Tunisian migrants in "marginal cases" turns its back on the European community.

It is not enough for Europe to support Tunisia's revolution: it must also provide support for the structural challenges that lie ahead until a state of peace and stability is restored. At the very least, this includes respecting the human rights of its people and their fundamental right to seek asylum.