Navigating IMF and Migration Policy Negotiations: Tunisia's Complex Dance

Since the end of February and after a long period of silence, the international community, notably the European Union, has finally shifted its focus to Tunisia. The debates surrounding the "migratory crisis" are flagrantly mixed with economic concerns, as tensions rise between the IMF and Kais Saied, who has just turned down a loan from the Fund.
Written by | 07 April 2023 | reading-duration 15 minutes

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Just like during the summer, the sea-crossing season seems to have started earlier than expected this year. In March, a growing number of people have been attempting to cross the central Mediterranean, known as one of the deadliest in the world. Since early 2023, Tunisia has been the country with the highest number of migrants heading to Italy, the gateway to Europe. On March 29, 2023, the Italian news agency Agenzia Nova counted 15.537 people registered on Italian soil (about half of the total arrivals for the whole year 2022), not including the 10.200 people who were intercepted by the Tunisian Coast Guard.

These figures are constantly being cited by the Italian Government, where the "Tunisian economic crisis" is now making headlines. They don't explain everything, however. The nationalities of the arrivals raise questions: most of them are not Tunisian, but rather Ivorian and Guinean. Unemployed, often without housing or having lost the possibility of paying rent, thousands have decided to fast-track their migration plans since the racist wave that swept through Tunisia in late February.

"Getting registered on the repatriation waiting lists has become almost impossible", sighed a young Ivorian woman waiting outside the Ivorian Embassy in Tunis, who explained that she wanted to leave the country "as soon as possible". The situation is no better opposite the headquarters of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which handles the so-called voluntary returns. Some people submitted their applications months ago, but are still waiting. The IOM stated in an interview with inkyfada that since February 2023, the organization has recorded an additional 600 requests for voluntary return. Many people see the Mediterranean as the only way out, and the migratory issue as a bargaining chip in the economic and financial agreements with Tunisia.

Italy, France, the European Union and the United States have all reacted to the situation in Tunisia on several occasions, but mostly to call for financial support for the country's migration policies or to comment on the socio-economic crisis rather than to denounce the violence inflicted on migrants. In this context, the negotiations around the International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan - which has been pending for several months - have been the focus of debates. On April 6, Kais Saied suddenly put an end to the negotiations by denouncing "the IMF's diktats". How did this happen?

The Italian intermediation

While the issue of distributing the reception of migrants among the various European countries has once again become a central point in the discussions on the reform of the Pact on Migration and Asylum in Brussels, Giorgia Meloni's Italy has quickly come to the forefront in the management of relations with Kais Saied's Tunisia under the banner of the "fight against irregular migration". When the African Union and several countries of the continent started to voice their criticism following the Tunisian presidential statement, the Italian Government didn’t hesitate to support the latter.

Meanwhile, the sinking of 72 migrants from Turkey off the coast of Crotone, an Italian town in the Calabria region, has rekindled the debate on migration. A few hours following the announcement of this umpteenth shipwreck, Antonio Tajani, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, addressed this issue, a pet subject of the Italian Right, and took advantage of the situation to bring up the question of border control not only in the eastern but also the central Mediterranean.

He called Nabil Ammar , Minister of Foreign Affairs - appointed on February 7 and former representative of Tunisia to the EU - and informed him that the Italian Government "is first in line to support Tunisia in its border control activities, in the fight against human trafficking, as well as in the creation of alternative options to migration”.

The next day, Italian news agencies reported that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met with her Tunisian counterpart Najla Bouden to "express her sympathy with the Tunisian people and authorities at this particularly sensitive time," as stated in a note from the Italian Government. Nabil Ammar was received in the meantime by the French Ambassador in Tunis who vaguely tweeted about "the attachment to the respect of rights and freedom", while reiterating France's support for Tunisia.

The economic component, on the other hand, is clearly addressed: in exchange for tighter control over departures from the Tunisian coast, Italy and France are committed to supporting Tunisia in its negotiations with the IMF, which had been put on hold, following a prior technical agreement in October 2022. This concerns the granting of a 1.9 billion dollar loan.

An agreement that has just been rejected by Kais Saied during a speech made on April 6 in Monastir, where he stressed that the austerity measures imposed by the financial institution could disrupt "social peace" in the country, which is undergoing an unprecedented socio-economic crisis.

Information published by the Financial Times indicates that, for several weeks, Rome has been pushing "for the IMF to start disbursing the loan without Tunisia's agreement," as stated in the article.

The race for official visits

In March, phone calls were followed by visits. Several Emirati media reported that Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where the Tunisian file was put on the table by Italy, with the aim of pushing the UAE to release financial aid for Tunisia.

But Meloni's Government has been especially active in Europe, gaining the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, who expressed on March 24 a "common will" to establish "a path of growth for Tunisia [...], but, in the very short term, we must manage to put an end to the migratory flows departing from Tunisia that are putting added pressure on Italy and the rest of Europe."

Following this meeting devoted to the French-Italian alignment, came the visit of the European Commissioner for Economic Affairs Paolo Gentiloni on March 27. He was Italy's Prime Minister between 2016 and 2018, during which time a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Italy and Tunisia on employment and economic development, which was renewed in 2021. This technical agreement allowed Italy to renew its commitments with Tunisia in terms of migration policies, including 6 million euros in funding for the repair of six patrol boats donated to the Ministry of the Interior in 2014.

Between 2011 and 2022, Italy has granted Tunisia 47 million euros for Tunisian border control, as shown in the figures published by the Italian investigative media IrpiMedia.

"The Commission is willing to consider additional macro-financial assistance if the necessary conditions are met. The first of these is the IMF's adoption of a new disbursement program. This needs to happen as soon as possible," as stated in the press release issued following Gentiloni's visit to Tunis. "The EU and Tunisia share many common interests, such as the management of migratory flows to Europe," again according to the statement. A few hours later, the United States joined the chorus: in a tweet, Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked the Italian Antonio Tajani, with whom he had discussed the challenges in Tunisia.

Despite Saied's rejection of the loan on April 6, discussions between the two men were still ongoing. "Let's give Tunisia a first tranche of funding, and if the reforms make progress, we will proceed with a second and then a third tranche. We discussed this issue with Blinken yesterday," declared the Italian Minister to the Ansa news agency.

EU-Tunisia relations: juggling tensions and false pretenses

While the international community seems to be unanimously committed to preventing Tunisia from falling further down the financial rating agencies' rankings - while conditioning bilateral aid to the IMF loan, which is no longer relevant - its position on Kais Saied's policies is neither clear nor explicit. On the one hand, Blinken mentioned the "Tunisian people's aspirations for a democratic and responsible government" and implicitly criticized Saied's centralization of power. On the other hand, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Tajani, explained in an interview with the Italian daily Il Corriere della Sera that Europe shouldn't "make the mistake of leaving Tunisia to the Muslim Brotherhood", referring to Ennahda party.

Just on February 18, he  ordered the expulsion of Esther Lynch , General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the EU's top trade union official.

A political expulsion that wasn't enough to make Brussels change its mind about expanding and financing its border outsourcing policies in Tunisia. Despite the reassuring speeches of the past few weeks, the relations between the EU and Tunisia do not seem as serene as the Italian and French Governments claim. On March 16, members of the European Parliament voted, by a large majority, for a resolution condemning Tunisia's abuses of civil liberties and freedom of expression.

Several journalistic sources also reported that the official meeting between Kais Saied and the European Commissioner Gentiloni in Tunis was delayed for several hours and various Italian agencies have even suggested that it was cancelled. The meeting did eventually take place, but no official photos were released.

The April 6 speech at the tomb of Habib Bourguiba in Monastir, leaves no doubt about Tunisia's position towards international pressure: with a combination of symbols and constant references to "colonialism", "independence" and "freedom" of the "nation", Saied openly rejected  "injunctions coming from abroad".

The loss of bargaining power

The European Union has been trying, for 30 years now, to delegate its border control to Southern Mediterranean countries in exchange for more financial aid. This kind of arrangement is hardly new. The first migration agreements between Rome and Tunis, for example, date back to 1998. The terms used at the time are similar to the ones used today: "the intrinsic causes of migration must be eliminated by all appropriate means, which will help increase employment opportunities," as stated in the 1998 Memorandum of Understanding, obtained by inkyfada.

25 years later, the authorities on the other side of the Mediterranean have fully assumed this objective, to the point that Giorgia Meloni recently stated that she wanted to apply the "model adopted in Turkey" in North Africa. In this context, the European Commission suggested in 2017 that Tunisia host regional landing platforms on its soil in order to "disembark people intercepted or rescued in the Mediterranean in North African countries which would then be entrusted with the task of sorting them," explained researcher Sophie-Anne Bisiaux in "Tunisia, a host country... for European policies" ( available in French).

Tahar Cherif, Tunisia's Ambassador to Brussels at the time, firmly rejected this possibility. But Tunisia's financial crisis has been brutally aggravated by the Covid-19 pandemic and later by the war in Ukraine. Compared with 2017, this has made it increasingly difficult to turn down the foreign loans on which Tunisian coffers depend, even though the political and social price of such aid - the ever stricter control of Tunisia's borders on the one hand, the reforms demanded by the IMF on the other - is quite high. "We have to rely on ourselves," said Kais Saied, when asked about possible alternatives.

"The EU is more interested in containing migrant boats than in saving lives at sea."

In recent years, Tunisia's land and sea borders have been increasingly closed with support and funding from the EU and individual countries such as Germany and Italy. The Tunisian Coast Guard received funding from the European Union, including Italy, to train and equip officers, which has made it extremely dangerous for migrants to cross the Mediterranean Sea. They have to reach more remote locations and take longer routes.

"What is alarming is that the EU is more interested in containing migrant boats than in saving lives at sea  and respecting human rights. One of the objectives of these policies is to stop migration at all costs and not to prioritize the respect for the rights of migrants in Tunisia," commented Ahlam Chemlali, who studies the impact of the EU's migration policy on the lives of migrants in Tunisia.

Instead of establishing safe and legal routes for migrants and refugees, the EU has been training the Tunisian Coast Guard to intercept boats to keep migrants from reaching Europe. The EU often presents these interceptions as "rescue operations" - a narrative also adopted by the Tunisian Coast Guard, according to Ahlam Chemlali. "The coastguards I interviewed for my research call the migrants they intercepted 'survivors’," she said. "But the migrants themselves don't feel like they were rescued but rather captured."

The disregard for human rights in the EU's migration policy was also demonstrated by Vasja Badalič in one of his reports. "The EU supports and relies on Tunisia's systemic violations of human rights in order to prevent irregular migrants from reaching the EU," he summarized.