Surge in migrant returns from Tunisia amid pressure and tensions

Thousands of migrants in Tunisia are opting to return home, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). This surge comes amidst rising anti-migrant sentiment within the country and pressure from Europe to curb migration flows.

The IOM facilitated the voluntary return of nearly 3,500 migrants between January and June 2024, a 200% increase compared to the same period last year. The program offers free flights and reintegration assistance to migrants who originally aimed to reach Europe through Tunisia. The Gambia, Burkina Faso, and Guinea are the primary destinations for these returning migrants.

However, human rights groups question the true voluntariness of these returns. Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), argues that restrictive policies targeting migrants force their hand. “Anti-migrant policies view them as a threat,” Ben Amor said, highlighting difficulties in finding work,housing, and using public transportation.

These tensions escalated last year after President Kais Saied’s comments labeling migrants a demographic threat.Hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans subsequently lost jobs and housing. Forced out of cities, they faced worsening living conditions and resorted to makeshift settlements while awaiting a chance to cross the Mediterranean.

The increase in “voluntary” repatriations also coincides with a strategic partnership between Tunisia and the European Union. The EU pledged financial aid in exchange for efforts to deter migration departures. Ben Amor suggests this partnership directly influences the rise in returns, with the EU providing logistical and technical means to enforce these policies.

Tunisia and neighboring Libya remain major transit points for migrants attempting perilous journeys to Europe. The Tunisian Interior Ministry estimates around 23,000 irregular migrants reside in the country. The situation remains grim,with FTDES reporting over 1,300 deaths or disappearances in shipwrecks off the North African coast last year.

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