By Martina Cociglio, Lorenzo Figoni and Marina Mattirolo
“I have never seen so many Tunisian nationals repatriated so quickly from the removal centre (CPR) in Turin”, ASGI lawyer Maurizio Veglio notes. “Everything happens in a very short time. They enter a removal centre, are taken before a Justice of the Peace and, within a few days, they are flown to Palermo for identification purposes and then returned directly to Tunisia”.
Faster procedures mean weaker protection
The excessive speed of this procedure severely hinders the exercise of the right to asylum. As every Tunisian national is automatically considered an ‘economic migrant’ – regardless of his personal story, this directly leads to his repatriation. “Sometimes” – the lawyer underlines – “it is simply impossible to guarantee the right of defence: lawyers cannot meet with detainees because, due to current Covid-19 restrictions, access to removal centres is highly limited and detainees have to surrender their mobile phones so they are oftentimes removed before they can even have a proper interview with a lawyer”.
When third-country nationals arrive at a removal centre, an expulsion order has been already issued against them. The 48 hours period in which the competent court (the Justice of the Peace) must validate the detention decision is too short for the detainees to gather evidence that they have previously expressed their will to apply for asylum but their request has been ignored. Information is scarce and passed on only by word of mouth, there is no access to legal counselling and no proper assessment of impediments to removals under the non-refoulement principle. Under these circumstances, repatriation is the only outcome possible.
If an international agreement of doubtful lawfulness is accelerating repatriations and filling additional flights from Italy to Tunisia, we should ask ourselves: Why is Italy so committed to systematically denying these individuals the right to seek asylum?
Lack of transparency
The current system is the result of a process of border externalisation that the European Union and its Member States have been developing for more than twenty years in order to hinder migratory movements.
Since the Turco-Napolitano Law was passed in 1998, the policy towards ‘irregular’ immigration has adopted a strong repressive approach, in which return and readmission agreements with countries of origin or transit have played a fundamental role.
With regard to Tunisia, the agreements reached over the years have been characterised by a certain level of informality, lack of transparency and, oftentimes, they have not been made publicly available. Furthermore, most of these agreements have been concluded in simplified form although their clear ‘political nature’ would require Parliament’s approval.
The first bilateral agreement between Italy and Tunisia was concluded on 6 August 1998 between the then Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini and the Tunisian ambassador in Rome. This was a note verbale whereby the Tunisian government committed to implementing effective controls on its coasts in exchange for reserved annual immigration quotas for Tunisian citizens.
A further agreement, which has never been made publicly available to date, was signed by the Interior Ministers of both countries in 2009 with the aim of implementing an accelerated procedure for the effective removal of Tunisian nationals without residence permits.
In 2011, while the so called ‘Jasmine Revolution’ was unfolding, 22,000 Tunisian citizens reached Lampedusa during the first months of that year. The Italian Minister of the Interior, Roberto Maroni, and his Tunisian counterpart, Habib Hessib, signed a new agreement in Tunis in a bid to halt the immigration wave and put an end to the ‘migration emergency’. This document included a commitment from the Tunisian side to reinforce coastal control and to accept direct refoulement of Tunisian migrants who were to land irregularly on Italian shores after 5 April 2011. However, the pact did not contain any indication on how to carry out repatriations, establishing only the need to ascertain the migrants’ nationality before their removal.
During the official visit of the President of the Tunisian Republic in Rome in February 2017, the Foreign Ministers of the two countries signed a further joint declaration aimed at establishing, among other things, a common framework for migration management with the aim of strengthening the fight against irregular immigration through a more effective control on maritime borders.
This pattern of ambiguous international cooperation on migration has been recently revived. As a result of the crisis triggered by the current pandemic, the number of Tunisian nationals irregularly reaching the Italian shores has increased, with more than 12,000 arrivals since the beginning of 2020. Therefore, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luigi Di Maio, and Minister of the Interior, Luciana Lamorgese, together with Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, and Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement, Olivér Várhelyi, visited Tunis in August 2020 to negotiate a new agreement. Shortly afterwards, the press announced that €11 million had been allocated to Tunisia in order to strengthen border controls. The Italian Minister of the Interior also announced that a further meeting in Tunisia would most likely take place in early 2021.
After the visit of Ministers Lamorgese and Di Maio, the pace of repatriations of Tunisian citizens has increased, reaching 1,564 repatriations since the beginning of 2020. It is worth noting that 1,200 repatriations took place after the new agreement: as Minister Lamorgese explained, ten additional repatriation flights per month have been added to the already existing two weekly flights, made available by the Tunisian government.
Everything suggests, therefore, that a new international agreement has been concluded, although nothing has been officially communicated and the requests of Italian and Tunisian civil society to obtain a copy of such an agreement have not been heard. In response to a request by ASGI, the Italian government declared that ‘no bilateral agreement was signed’ at the meeting held in Tunis on 17 August 2020 and ‘evaluations of new initiatives to be funded are still underway’.
The lack of democratic control over these clearly political agreements and the fact that it is impossible to know their content raise a number of questions about their legitimacy in both countries. Indeed, as the Tunisian MP for the Democratic Current (Attayar) Majdi Karbai tells us, “After the establishment of the new Constitution, any agreement must be ratified by the Tunisian Parliament”. The lack of a new agreement would therefore make the recent increase in the number of removals inexplicable, if not considered in the framework of a general lack of transparency that has characterised the policies of border externalisation since the beginning and that, to date, shows no sign of disappearing. The 2009 agreement has never been published or obtained through a FOI request; the 2011 agreement has been made publicly available in the context of the judgment ‘Khlaifia v. Italy’ before the European Court of Human Rights; the 2017 agreement has never been published but has been obtained through a FOI request.  To this regard, a FOI request has been put forward.
Photo credit: Luciano Massimi