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How Europe is paying other countries to police its borders

Hidden behind tall cactuses shielding an olive grove in the small Tunisian town of Jebiniana, around 300 people take refuge under makeshift plastic shelters, waiting to cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter Europe.

One of them is Aruna, a 39-year-old Sierra Leonean who arrived last year. He has already survived an arduous 5,000km journey across the Sahara. But he is still in danger.

The coastal area around the port of Sfax — a little under 190km from the Italian island of Lampedusa — has become the focus of a violent crackdown by Tunisian authorities, who receive millions of euros in annual funding to help the EU curb migration.

In mid-February, when Aruna left the camp to buy food, he was spotted and arrested by local police. “They took my phone, they tied me up, they beat me,” he says. “Then they took me to the desert.”

Borderlands

This is the second in a series on the unprecedented scale of migration, which is stoking political and economic crises on both sides of the Atlantic

Part one: The migrant highway that could sway the US election
Part two: How Europe is paying other countries to protect its borders
Part three: Is Europe wasting the talents of its migrants?
Part four: The challenges along the US-Mexico border

According to Aruna, officers from Tunisia’s national guard hauled him on to a bus and drove him and 70 other people to the Algerian border, where they abandoned the group at 2am without food or water. It took him 13 days to get back to the camp, hiding during the day and walking at night on swollen feet, to reunite with his seven-year-old son, teenage brother and other relatives.

The family is among the thousands of people from countries across Africa who are willing to take one of the deadliest routes to Europe to escape conflict and poverty.

In 2023, some 292,000 people arrived in the EU irregularly, without permission to enter or stay — the highest figure since 2016, according to the UN International Organization for Migration.

The surge in migration, which set Europe on a decade-long search for solutions, is now testing the EU’s values and commitment to protecting human rights. Under pressure from far-right parties, campaigning for June’s European parliamentary elections on an anti-immigration ticket, the EU has been adopting increasingly draconian measures to deter asylum seekers and migrants.

European countries are fortifying their borders with fences, fast-tracking asylum procedures in closed centres and outsourcing asylum processes to a string of countries on the edge of Europe, including the authoritarian Tunisia. But can these controversial policies solve the issue — and at what cost?

Experts have accused the EU, which has also recently signed agreements with Mauritania and Egypt, of turning a blind eye to the resulting human rights abuses. “The priorities for the EU are clear: it’s to minimise departures from Tunisia, no matter the humanitarian damage,” says Romdhane Ben Amor, spokesperson for the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES).

The agreement between the EU and Tunisia is emblematic of the trade-offs. Interceptions of people at sea by the Tunisian authorities doubled last year to 81,000, says the FTDES. Two-thirds of the €105mn pledged under the deal are dedicated to border management, according to figures seen by the FT. Overall, the EU is projected to spend €278mn on migration in Tunisia until 2027.

But the Tunisian authorities have over the past few months also arrested and forcibly removed thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to Algeria and Libya in violation of international and humanitarian law, according to European diplomats, international humanitarian staff and NGOs. Several people interviewed by the FT say they have been arbitrarily arrested and sent to border areas; some say they have been detained in Libyan prisons.

More than 60 migrants wait to be rescued by Médecins Sans Frontières, the medical humanitarian organisation, from their sinking boat off the coast of Libya last month © Simone Boccaccio/SOPA/Reuters

Kali, who came to Jebiniana from Nigeria, says he was sold to the Libyan authorities by the Tunisian national guard after being intercepted at sea in October 2023. “They handed [an] envelope to them in our presence,” he adds. Kali says he and 40 others were taken to a prison near Tripoli and forced to pay €700 each to be released.

International officials confirmed that there were individual allegations of human trafficking against the Tunisian authorities. The Tunisian foreign ministry says the accusations that the country has violated migrants’ rights are “unfounded”.

“It’s the dilemma the EU is faced with. On the one hand, it does have exceptionally high fundamental rights standards,” says Emily O’Reilly, the EU ombudsman who leads independent investigations into the bloc’s administration. “On the other hand, it is facing this very contested issue of migration.”


The harsher migration policies were first tested in the aftermath of 2015 and 2016, when a record number of people claimed asylum in the EU, many fleeing the Syrian civil war.

The sudden arrival of over 2mn men, women and children overburdened southern countries such as Italy and Greece, where the majority of irregular migrants first arrive. Migrants are obliged to register for asylum wherever they first enter the EU, according to the bloc’s so-called Dublin rules. At the same time, wealthier countries such as Germany complained that migrants were travelling north without having registered, accusing southern countries of looking the other way.

To ease the pressure, in 2016 the EU struck a deal with Turkey, which agreed to house Syrian refugees heading for Europe in exchange for €6bn over several years. This was topped up in 2021 by an additional €3bn.

Politicians have hailed the arrangement as a success — irregular arrivals to the bloc dropped by 50 per cent between 2016 and 2017, according to the IOM. “You don’t need much [more evidence] to be convinced,” says Greek migration minister Dimitris Kairidis. The EU funds have contributed to border management but also healthcare, education, and cash transfer to migrants in Turkey. In border provinces, “there is a recognition that European assistance is helping them to cope,” says Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, head of the EU delegation to Turkey.

Since then, the EU has intensified efforts to outsource the issue. The Tunisia agreement is one of many “dodgy deals which attempt to limit the movement of people, many of whom are in need of protection”, argues Catherine Woollard of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE).

One example is the 2017 agreement between Italy and Libya, under which the EU pledged funds to curb migration, including €59mn to strengthen the Libyan coastguard. But the imprisonment, enslavement and torture of migrants and asylum seekers in Libyan prisons is well documented. In 2023, a UN report accused the Libyan authorities of potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Around 300 people have taken refuge under makeshift plastic shelters in the Tunisian town of Jebiniana waiting to cross the Mediterranean to Europe © Nicolas Fauqué/FT
Tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in Tunisia have been left in limbo, without the ability to access housing or work legally © Nicolas Fauqué/FT

European diplomats and international humanitarian staff told the FT that the imprisonment of migrants in Libya continues, and that at least 7,000 people intercepted in Tunisia have been taken there since last summer. “What else do we need to know in order to suspend the funding?” asks Tineke Strik, an EU lawmaker for the Greens, arguing that the EU’s support for third countries gives it “co-responsibility” for the rights breaches.

Rather than slowing down its efforts, the EU is increasingly toughening its external borders to deter people from coming. After years of wrangling, in December the bloc agreed a momentous reform of its common asylum and migration system, but without significantly overhauling the Dublin rules. Instead, more claims will be heard in closed centres at the border, which campaigners say are de facto detention facilities.

Aid organisations fear this will lead to greater levels of detention, including for children, at key entry points. “It’s a continuation of [the] commitment to stop migration at all costs,” says Anissa Thabet, human mobility co-ordinator for Oxfam north Africa.

Another idea proposed by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) in its election manifesto is that “anyone applying for asylum in the EU could also be transferred to a safe third country” to undergo the asylum process and receive protection there. It resembles Italy’s plans to send asylum seekers intercepted on the high seas to Albania, where they would await their asylum decision before returning to Italy — if they were successful — which von der Leyen has praised as “out-of-the-box thinking”.

But both plans echo the UK’s ongoing bid to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, which was struck down by the UK’s Supreme Court on the grounds that it would violate international law. EU ombudsman O’Reilly predicts that the EU would face “the same difficulties”. Von der Leyen has said the plans are in “full respect of our obligations under EU and international law” but did not say which country would fit those criteria.

There are other ways that agreements with third countries can backfire. In Turkey, which is experiencing an economic crisis, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has toughened his stance on immigration with many Turks feeling the country has reached the limit on refugees. Around 3.1mn Syrian refugees currently live in Turkey, a country of about 85mn people, compared to a high of 3.7mn in 2021, according to government data.

Mahmut Kacan, a human rights lawyer, says Turkey declared an “open doors policy” when unrest in Syria broke out in 2011 but that “has completely changed now”.

Van, a bustling city near Turkey’s border with Iran, has become a frontline in Erdoğan’s effort to repel irregular migrants. Turkish authorities have been accused of forcibly expelling newcomers, mainly Afghan refugees escaping the Taliban regime after its 2021 takeover. Mohammed, an Afghan refugee turned people smuggler, says he has witnessed Turkish border guards pushing people back into the snow-capped mountains without letting them claim asylum.

Kacan says “100 per cent” of migrants apprehended at the border are sent back to Iran. Even those who do make it to Turkish asylum centres “may find themselves suddenly in Iran” before they can lodge an application. “Their asylum applications are not received according to law,” he adds.

The Turkish government did not respond to a request for comment.

Mustafa, another Afghan refugee, is among those who were able to settle in Turkey. “People here do not treat us badly”, he says, but his family has not received assistance beyond that provided by the state.

Several other refugees interviewed by the FT also indicated they had not benefited from EU-funded non-governmental organisation or humanitarian programmes.


With far-right parties across the continent gaining strength, Conservative parties such as von der Leyen’s EPP believe more hardline policies on immigration are the solution to stopping them.

Last year, Geert Wilders and his far-right Freedom party won parliamentary elections in the Netherlands on a hardline anti-migration and anti-Islam ticket. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is polling second in Germany, and Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) leads polls in France. Those gains could propel the far-right Identity and Democracy (ID) group to third place in the European parliament elections in June.

But critics of the policy point out that outsourcing the challenges with immigration is only a short-term fix that also leaves the EU open to blackmail. Erdoğan, for example, has repeatedly used refugees as a bargaining chip to extract more funds and concessions from Europe. In 2020, he “opened the gates” to Europe, prompting thousands of Syrian refugees to attempt to cross the Greek border. In response, Greece deployed tear gas and live rounds against them.

Almost 500 migrants camp outside the International Organization for Migration offices in Tunis in February awaiting repatriation to their countries of origin © Nicolas Fauqué/FT

Greek minister Kairidis concedes it is a “difficult equation”, but sees no other alternative. “There is no point in hiding the fact that we are not necessarily talking about regimes that are similar to ours, but we have to be realistic,” Kairidis says. He defends the EU agreement with Egypt, signed in March, which includes at least €200mn dedicated to migration. “We can achieve much better results together against the smugglers,” he adds.

The UN’s IOM has also questioned the effectiveness of the EU’s co-operation with third countries. Focusing only on borders “ultimately leads to a high loss of life and exposure to violence and exploitation”, argues Amy Pope, the IOM’s director-general. Governments should also “look at what’s driving people to move” and “engage with communities where migrants are coming from”.

Many people — those in African countries, for instance — face high hurdles and delays to get visas for Europe, she says, and irregular migration supported by smugglers is currently the “most effective way” for people to migrate. At the same time, several European countries, including Italy and Greece, have embarked on initiatives to attract a limited number of legal migrants to plug crucial gaps in their labour markets.

In a twist of irony, Tunisians represented the second-largest group of people crossing the central Mediterranean and arriving in Italy last year. After a coup d’état in 2021, President Kais Saied reversed the democratic transition under way since the 2011 Arab Spring and the country is facing a deep economic crisis.

Tunisia itself is also not equipped to host people from elsewhere, as it does not have a functioning asylum or migration system. Last year, thousands of sub-Saharan migrants who had previously been informally integrated were driven out of urban centres by citizens and authorities after Saied gave an incendiary speech in February warning that immigration was changing the “demographic composition” of the country.

Tens of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers in Tunisia have been left in limbo, without the ability to access housing or work legally. Voluntary returns of migrants from Tunisia to their home countries, facilitated by the IOM, increased last year by 45 per cent but that is not an option for people fearing conflict and persecution.

Many migrants at the camp in Jebiniana and elsewhere are determined to complete their journeys despite the risks © Nicolas Fauqué/FT
Tunisia is not equipped to host people from elsewhere, as it does not have a functioning asylum or migration system © Nicolas Fauqué/FT

“All of Tunisia has been transformed into a detention centre for migrants,” says Romdhane Ben Amor of the FTDES. “You can’t work, you can’t move, you are deprived of all rights”, with voluntary return or the Mediterranean crossing as the only options, he adds.

The Tunisian foreign ministry says that “persons intercepted at sea or in an irregular situation are treated in accordance with national legislation and Tunisia’s international commitments” but adds that Tunisia “will not accept the implicit implantation of clandestine migrants on its territory”.

The European Commission says it is “closely following the situation of migrants in Tunisia and at the borders with Algeria and Libya.” It added: “The EU remains committed to continue working with Tunisia on migration, including to ensure protection of migrants and refugees and dignified returns of irregular migrants to countries of origin, in full respect of human rights.”

Officials and aid workers say they are wary of pressuring the Tunisian authorities over reports of human rights abuses lest they jeopardise the relationship, and fearful that the authorities would let departures rise again.

Meanwhile, as Tunisia has intensified the crackdown on migrants, departures have been rising from Libya this year. It is once again the primary country of irregular departures towards Europe.

But many migrants at the camp in Jebiniana and elsewhere are determined to complete their journeys despite the risks. Aruna used to work as a security guard at a local college in Sierra Leone, but he was forced to flee after his wife was shot dead by security forces during an anti-government protest in Waterloo, once a haven for Africans liberated from slavery.

The home he left behind no longer offers him safety, he says. “I want to go to Europe for my life to be saved.”

Additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley in Şanlıurfa, Turkey, and Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome

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