Europe’s Neocolonial Pact to Combat African Migration

2023-10-26    |   

Europe’s Neocolonial Pact to Combat African Migration

In 1995, 27 states,[1] including three Maghrebi states and Israel and led by the 15 European Union states of the time, launched a new Euro-Mediterranean partnership called the “Barcelona Process” with the declared goal of turning the Mediterranean Basin into an “area of dialogue, exchange and cooperation, guaranteeing peace, stability and prosperity”. The terms of the new partnership focused on political and security “dialogue”, and its action programme recommended “strengthening cooperation among police, judicial and other authorities” with a view to “stepping up exchanges of information” and “improving extradition procedures” in relation to “terrorism” and “illegal migration”. The new partnership was promoted on the basis that, unlike its predecessor, it included a “suspensive clause” requiring its members to respect human rights, while Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s regime was the first to sign. It led to a succession of conferences (Malta in April 1997, Stuttgart in 1999, and Marseille in 2000), meetings, and committees, but the anticipated prosperity did not materialize in the Southern Mediterranean. Conversely, the Barcelona Process managed to cement a new neocolonial pact among the countries of the two shores, one that rehabilitated the notion that the interests and futures of their ruling elites are connected on a neoliberal basis that led to a new Mediterranean security strategy of approaching “terrorism” (exclusively Islamic) and “clandestine migration” (exclusively from the Global South) as shared and equal “challenges” from the perspective of organized transnational crime. This pact depended on trading European political and financial support to Global South countries south of the Mediterranean for the latter’s cooperation in the realm of policing, containing, criminalizing, and stemming the flow of migration.[2]


Consequently, the Barcelona Process provided official European backing for Ben Ali’s elimination of his main political rival, the Ennahda Movement. His regime increasingly sought to demonstrate its good intentions and fervent effort to respect the new pact in order to maintain its position as a trustworthy and dependable partner for Europe. Hence, in 1998, it signed the first treaty with Italy allowing all irregular migrants – Tunisian or otherwise – to be deported to Tunisia. It then boosted its security cooperation on protecting Italy’s borders via a new treaty signed in 2003. The same year, it hosted the first 5+5 Dialogue summit, in which Spain, France, Italy, Malta, and Portugal, alongside Algeria, Libya, Mauritania, and Morocco, discussed “migration and terrorism”. Then, in February 2004, it enacted a new law punishing any form of assistance with entering or leaving Tunisian territory. The law punished even family members and people protected by professional confidentiality, such as doctors and lawyers, should they fail to report migrants. It was used to criminalize migrants and asylum seekers and further tighten the regime’s grip on, and surveillance over, society.[3] At that time began the detention of irregular migrants in the “accommodation” center in El Ouardia and the deportation of migrants, unable to pay for tickets back to their countries of origin, to the Algerian or Libyan borders.[4] In 2009, following the escalation of the social protests and human-rights movement in Tunisia, the regime sought once more to cement its role as Europe’s “good pupil” by committing, via a new bilateral agreement with the right-wing Silvio Berlusconi government, to accelerate the process of forcibly deporting irregular Tunisian migrants to Tunisia by improving and expediting the procedures for identifying them in Tunisian consulates in Italy.[5]


In May 2010, the regime was rewarded with the establishment of a Tunisian-European Union work committee to create a roadmap for granting Tunisia Advanced Status in its relationship with the European Union. This status, which Morocco had obtained in October 2008, would enhance commercial and security cooperation and cooperation in the realm of migration. However, this development did not help Ben Ali, who had to flee to Saudi Arabia several months later after failing to find refuge in any European state.


The immigration obsession that, from the early 1990s, gradually imposed itself as a key theme of Europe’s Maghrebi and African policy laid the groundwork for a strategic formula linking stability in the Mediterranean Basin to control over the “flow of migrants” to Europe. This formula involves entrusting the role of guarding Europe’s borders to Global South countries[6] by recruiting their security agencies to pursue, intercept, contain, restrict, and immobilize irregular migrants heading from these countries to Europe. This was reinforced in 1995 with the Schengen Area’s creation of new unified foreign borders for Europe that, from 1999, allowed the European Union to handle the deportation of irregular migrants as a shared issue for its member states.[7] In 2004, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) was established and the European Commission adopted the Hague Programme, the priorities of which included intensifying cooperation with southern countries on tackling irregular migration, especially in the realms of deportation and creating a unified foreign borders fund.[8] This led to further intensification of regional security approaches and redoubling of the “processes” and strategies aimed at turning Africa into a space for monitoring and deterring migrants, and creating barriers, prisons, laws, many deadly difficulties, and a few trivial inducements to prevent them from reaching Europe. On this basis, the Rabat Process was launched in early 2006 as a permanent Euro-African framework for coordination on targeting the migration channels connecting origin states in Central and West Africa to Europe via North Africa.

Europe’s immigration obsession intensified amidst the revolutionary movement in the region (because it targeted regimes that had proven themselves effective in guarding the European Union’s borders), especially as arrivals from Tunisia and Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa increased. From the beginning of the revolution to September 2011, a total of 55,298 people reached the island (27,315 from Tunisia and 27,983 from Libya, most of them nationals of Niger, Ghana, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire).[9] Ben Ali’s flight and the collapse of the border control system in Tunisia allowed over 25,000 Tunisian migrants to reach Italian shores in just three months. Likewise, the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, which had an agreement with Italy on managing migration,[10] and the escalation of the armed conflict in Libya caused deep changes in the migration routes and the emergence of new, more rugged and dangerous corridors. Subsequently, Italy promptly declared a state of emergency in February 2011 and signed a new treaty with Tunisia less than two months later.[11] Then, in 2014, the European Union launched the Khartoum Process, which was a new permanent Euro-African coordination framework targeting the migration corridors connecting Horn of Africa countries to Europe. In 2015, the Valletta Summit on migration resulted in the establishment of a European emergency trust fund to support the European Union’s policy on “confronting clandestine migration”, which is financed directly from the provisions and various tools of the European Union allocated to foreign policy, particularly development and humanitarian aid.[12] In 2016, amidst the Syrian Civil War and the “refugee crisis”, the European Union signed an agreement with Turkey providing the latter with financial aid in exchange for it clamping down on and containing Syrian migrants fleeing from the regime’s massacres and the armed Salafist groups’ brutality.

The revolution did not succeed in breaking with the neocolonial pact tying Tunisia to the European Union. It only managed to introduce some turmoil into the pact during its first two years. Italy, in the wake of Ben Ali’s fall, was forced to regularize the status of thousands of young arrivals from Tunisia because it could not deport them,[13] and its government at the time failed to extract a binding agreement from Tunisia in this regard despite its persistent effort to do so. Likewise, the revolution prompted the Tunisian government to relax some of the procedures of the 2004 law and even allowed it, for the first time, to reject the draft “mobility partnership agreement” presented by the European Union in 2012 and draft alternative proposals easing the visa system for Tunisians and respecting human rights.[14] Likewise, during the term of State Secretary for Immigration and Tunisian Expatriates Houcine Jaziri (2012-2014), there were unprecedented attempts to involve migration and civil society organizations in the formulation of a first draft for a “national migration strategy”. However, beginning in 2013, the failures of the Arab and Tunisian revolutions quickly rehabilitated security-based governance of migration and cemented Tunisia’s subordinate position in European security strategies. The new agreement with the European Union signed in 2014 after pressure from the latter[15] traded some “visa facilitation” for a minority of Tunisians desired in Europe for Tunisia further developing its cooperation on deporting undesired migrants and further clamping down on Sub-Saharan Africans, including doubling the fines for irregular residency. Since then, Tunisia has approved a multitude of agreements, treaties, dialogues, meetings, consultations, and processes concerning technical, security, and training cooperation. These treaties were bilateral (with, for example, Switzerland, Germany, Britain, and France) or regional. They were related to migration and “combating human trafficking” (a fig leaf used to conceal the inhumane policy of “Fortress Europe”). These measures are difficult to inventory because of their confidentiality, their brevity, their scattered sources, or the lack of information about the impact of their implementation in most cases.

The Deepening of the Neocolonial Pact: Deadly Borders and Brutalized Black Bodies

Despite the sovereigntist discourse of the July 25 authority, its management of the migration issue has involved no revision of the neocolonial pact tying Tunisia to the European Union. Rather, the authority has engaged in the same barter without any transparency or open and democratic discussion. This barter brings European recognition of the authority via the provision of financial aid, contingent on the application of the International Monetary Fund’s austerity-based diktats, and institutional support for the state in the five forms identified by human rights organization Privacy International: “Direct equipping of foreign intelligence and security forces, training of foreign intelligence and security forces, financing of their operations and procurement, facilitating of exports of surveillance equipment by industry, [and] promoting legislation which enables surveillance”. In return, Tunisia undertakes to strengthen the sea and land border-control system that protects Europe, which includes pursuing and deporting migrants.

Moreover, the Memorandum of Understanding on a Strategic and Global Partnership signed by the Tunisian president’s office and the European Union in July 2023 testifies to the deepening of this pact in recent times, even if that memorandum faces German and French opposition that could prevent it from being put to the Council of the European Union for approval. There are three main reasons that this policy is continuing.


The first reason, which certainly goes beyond Tunisia, is European policy’s upward and aggressive trend of “promoting the European way of life in the field of managing immigration and asylum”[16] by exporting the protection of its borders to the southern countries, which ultimately serves economic interests closely connected to the border-industrial complex of arms manufacturing, surveillance, and Western cyber technology. Frontex, the European Union’s security arm, provides the most valuable services in this regard, as documented by the research organization Corporate Europe Observatory.[17] The militarization of the Mediterranean Sea and the borders between African countries – as well as the spread therein of strategies of pursuing, surveilling, controlling, blockading, and tracking migrants, erecting barriers to their movement, building detention centers, and making the routes for crossing into Europe increasingly dangerous and deadly – ultimately depend on technologies, techniques, tools, and investments that form a standalone economy that has steadily prospered as the European obsession with immigration escalates and the Euro-African processes for confronting it proliferate. This economy, which generates enormous profits for Western companies specialized in arms-manufacturing and surveillance thanks to security and military expenditure, of which the African continent is an inexhaustible market, is evidenced by the rapid growth of Frontex’s budget. In 2020, the budget reached EUR5.6 billion and was the largest among all European Union agencies. The best indicator of the expansion of the power and purview of this agency and its transformation into what resembles a border-protection army is the increase in the number of its employees from 45 in 2005 to 10,000 scheduled by 2027.[18] Note that Tunisia’s involvement as a subordinate player in what economist Claude Serfaty calls “military globalization” is growing. A key driver of this form of globalization is “protecting Fortress Europe” from the “creep of migrants” from Africa. Tunisia’s involvement serves not only the interests of the European military-security complex but also the “export of the Israeli occupation’s technology”, which the Zionist state has developed through repressing, monitoring, and mass confinement of Palestinians as part of a systematic expulsion from their homeland. This is documented by investigative journalist Antony Loewenstein in his latest book,[19] which confirms Frontex’s use of Israeli technologies in the European Union’s “war” on migrants. These technologies include the Heron drone; Israeli surveillance company Cellebrite’s services for hacking encrypted chat applications on migrants’ phones, collecting information about them, and determining their movements;[20] and Israeli company Windward’s maritime surveillance applications.[21] There is no doubt that Tunisia is fully engaged in Frontex’s coastal monitoring program.


The second reason for the deepening of the neocolonial pact is Tunisia’s worsening dependence on it and Europe’s increasing ability to gain from it. This is due to Tunisia’s growing role as a transit territory for irregular migrants headed for Europe and the decline in the number using all other Mediterranean migration routes. This decline ranged from 6% in the western Mediterranean Sea to 34% in the eastern Mediterranean Sea route relative to last year. In the same vein, Tunisia’s role as an origin country of migration has grown. According to statistics from the Italian Ministry of Interior, during the period from the start of January to mid-December, the number of Tunisian migrants arriving in Italy rose from 12,542 in 2020 to 15,036 in 2021 and then to 17,617 in 2022, respectively occupying the first place, first place, and second place among all nationalities arriving in Italy. The number then doubled in the first seven months of 2023, according to the Italian minister of interior.[22] Facing this development, Tunisia found itself compelled to intensify its cooperation in the realm of stopping migrants. This is evidenced by several figures revealed by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights: since 25 July 2021, Tunisia has intercepted over 93,000 migrants at its shores – over two thirds of the number that had been intercepted over more than 11 years. Likewise, since the beginning of 2023, it has prevented approximately 35,000 migrants from reaching Italy, accepted the forced deportation of over 4,600 Tunisian migrants from Italy, and agreed to receive 26 flights from Germany loaded with unwanted Tunisians. These figures have clear economic and political implications. Firstly, they show that following the further escalation of the economic crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic then the Ukraine war and the subsequent increase in unemployment, vulnerability, and poverty, irregular migration became – more than ever before in Tunisia – the only chance for marginalized, unemployed, and dejected youth to achieve some dignity, notwithstanding its growing risks. They also confirm once again that in the absence of any alternative socioeconomic policies that break and clash with austerity, impoverishment, and inequality and support a social, ecological, and democratic alternative, security-based governance of the popular classes on the land and in the Mediterranean Sea will remain the authority’s only choice, albeit one that it cloaks in various excuses revolving around conspiracy theories. Finally, they confirm that the logical result of such an alignment is further dependence on foreign loans and alignment behind the agendas of the European Union, which is intent on constructing what French philosopher Étienne Balibar calls “European Apartheid”.[23]


The third and perhaps most illustrative reason for the deepening of the Tunisian authority’s voluntary involvement in the neoliberal pact is the dramatic developments that we have witnessed since the beginning of this year and that undoubtedly represent a political turn in its management of the migration issue. The developments in question are the president’s promotion of the “Great Replacement” theory, which is dear to the European far right, and the subsequent campaigns to pursue and criminalize Black people, which peaked last July with the forced deportation of hundreds to the Libyan and Algerian borders under circumstances that the United Nations described as “racist treatment”. This deportation led to the death of approximately thirty people, which the authority still has no qualms about denying.


How could this happen when it is impossible to treat irregular white Europeans in this manner? Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe summarizes the answer with what he calls “necropolitics”. Necropolitics is a modern way of exercising power and sovereignty that involves subjecting Black lives – i.e. “the new ‘wretched of the earth’… to whom the right to have rights is refused, those who are told not to move, those who are condemned to live within structures of confinement – camps, transit centers… those who are turned away, deported, expelled, the clandestine, the ‘undocumented’”[24] – to the power of death. Neocolonialism, like the colonialism of yesteryear, depends on race, including the brutalization of Black people, as a strategy to dominate space and impose its disciplinary and surveillance power, and it is all too comfortable with partners that share this view.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic


[1] They were France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Holland, Britain, Sweden, Greece, Portugal, Austria, Luxembourg, Ireland, and Denmark in the north and Algeria, the Palestinian Authority, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, and Turkey. In 2007, they were joined by Mauritania and Albania.

[2] Olfa Lamloum, “L’enjeu de l’islamisme au cœur du processus de Barcelone”, Critique internationale, 2003, p. 129-142.

[3] Hamza Meddeb, “Courir ou mourir. Course à el Khobza et domination au quotidien dans la Tunisie de Ben Ali”,PhD thesis, Paris Institute of Political Studies, 2012, p. 142.

[4] Katharina Natter, The Politics of Immigration Beyond Liberal States: Morocco and Tunisia in Comparative Perspective, 2023.

[5] In 2008, Lampedusa witnessed an increase in the number of seafaring migrants destined for Europe (31,252 in 2008 compared to 11,749 in 2007, 18,047 in 2006, and 15,527 in 2005).

[6] Thomas Borrel, “L’obsession croissante des migrations”, L’empire qui ne veut pas mourir: Une histoire de la françafrique, Éditions du Seuil, 2021.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament – The Hague Programme: Ten priorities for the next five years The Partnership for European renewal in the field of Freedom, Security and Justice”, 10 May 2005.

[9] Council of Europe, Parliamentary Assembly, Ad Hoc Sub-Committee on the large-scale arrival of irregular migrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees on Europe’s southern shores, report on the visit to Lampedusa (Italy), AS/MIG/AHLARG (2011) 03 REV 2., 30 September 2011.

[10] Ibid. The number of refugees arriving on Lampedusa fell sharply in 2009 and 2010 (2,947 and 459 respectively).

[11] Abdelkarim Hannachi, “Breve storia dell’immigrazione tunisina in Italia”, Centro Studi e Ricerche IDOS, 2012.

[12] This pertains to the countries in the region of the coast, Lake Chad, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa.

[13] Between 2010 and 2011, the number of esidence permits granted on humanitarian grounds in Italy quadrupled. Of these, 27.5% were allocated to Tunisian migrants.

[14] Katharina Natter, The Politics of Immigration Beyond Liberal States, op. cit., p. 147.

[15] Jean-Pierre Cassarino, “Channelled Policy Transfers: EU-Tunisia Interactions on Migration Matters”, European Journal of Migration and Law, vol. 16, is. 1, 2014, p. 97-123.

[16] “Regulation on Asylum and Migration” in “Promoting our European Way of Life”, Legislative Train Schedule, European Parliament.

[17] Myriam Douo, Luisa Izuzquiza, & Margarida Silva, “Lobbying Fortress Europe: The Making of a Border-Industrial Complex”, February 2021.

[18] Regulation (EU) 2019/1896 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 13 November 2019 on the European Border and Coast Guard and repealing Regulations (EU) No 1052/2013 and (EU) 2016/1624.

[19] Antony Loewenstein, The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World, Verso, 2023.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Paola Tamma, “Europe’s ‘Template’ for Migration: Tunisian Strongman’s Racist Clampdown”, Politico, 28 August 2023.

[23] Etienne Balibar, L’Europe, l’Amérique, la guerre: Réflexions sur la médiation européenne, La Découverte, 2005.

[24] Achille Mbembe, translated by Laurent Dubois,, Critique of Black Reason, Duke University Press, 2017, p. 177.

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