Even though the right to mobility is one of the fundamental rights stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a significant number of Tunisians find themselves deprived of such a right, even after fulfilling all the bureaucratic procedures for visa application. Many of them have been faced with vague and unclear reasons for the rejection of their visa requests.
The rejection of visas to France has recently gained widespread attention. But the case of esteemed Tunisian actor, Raouf Ben Amor, took the debate to a new level where ‘humiliation’ becomes a keyword. Raouf Ben Amor, a well-known Tunisian actor, caused a stir when he requested help to secure a visa appointment on Facebook. This was to attend the “Mon Premier Film” festival as a jury member, scheduled to take place from June 12th to June 16th, 2023, in France. The 76-year-old actor has previously lived in France and was beyond qualified to obtain the visa without any issues, whatever that means. Following the indignation spread across social media, prompting an intervention to rectify this situation, the actor was eventually offered an appointment to finally obtain the coveted visa.
But the truth is esteemed actor or not, granting visas to Tunisians is not a favour, given the existence of mutual interests and bilateral agreements between the two countries and the significant advantages that were granted to foreign, particularly French, companies after Tunisia’s independence, and even after the overthrow of the regime in 2011.
According to official data, Cotusal, the General Company of Tunisian Salines, which benefited from the 1949 agreements, alone produces between 900,000 and 1 million tons per year and achieves transactions worth about 34 million dinars (13.6 million dollars) out of a total of 51 million dinars (20.5 million dollars) generated by the salt extraction sector in Tunisia. However, the Tunisian state loses 900,000 dinars annually due to Cotusal’s non-compliance with mining regulations and its failure to pay taxes to the government’s Coastal Protection and Development Agency.
In May 2018, the Tunisian Parliament’s Industry, Energy, and Natural Resources Committee called on the government to review the contracts for the exploitation of Tunisian salt by Cotusal. Since it was automatically extended twice for 15 years in 2014, the current agreement will expire in 2029. On February 27th 2019, however, the Tunisian government decided not to renew the salt exploitation agreement with “Cotusal.” Unsurprisingly, the number of visa rejections to France started increasing between 2018 and 2019, and ever since the COVID crisis, the percentage of visa refusals for applications submitted to France has been evolving at an unjustifiable rate.
In this context, Ahmed Jamaa, a sociologist and one of the authors of the study ‘Fortress Europe,’ stated: “Visa refusals represent an insult to Tunisia, but it is not an isolated issue. It links migration to the political economy within a relationship of dominance that unites Tunisia with the European Union as a whole and is based on the plundering of the Maghreb region and Africa’s wealth”. The study adds that visa policies are used as a means of pressure on ‘third world’ countries that do not cooperate sufficiently in the issue of accepting migrants’ return.
On a larger scheme, while Tunisia categorically refused the EU’s installation on its soil in 2018, attempts to outsource European borders to Tunisia and the potential for Tunisia to become the “African hotspot” for the European Union (EU) in terms of migration management are being gradually reinforced. In her article “La Tunisie, terre d’accueil… des politiques européennes”, Sophie-Anne Bisiaux talks about a contingency plan that Tunisia has been working on since 2014, in cooperation with the IOM, UNHCR, and other UN actors. The EU’s role in the contingency plan is not clear, but suspicions suggest it could be used as a tool for the EU’s border externalization policies. The plan first mentions the opening of negotiations for the conclusion of a “Mobility Partnership” (MP). Bisiaux argues that this partnership, which was the subject of a joint declaration between Tunisia and the EU in 2014, misrepresents its name. In exchange for a visa facilitation policy reserved for a highly skilled elite of Tunisian nationals, Tunisia would commit to signing a readmission agreement. This agreement would facilitate the return to Tunisia, not only of its own nationals expelled from Europe but also of third-country nationals who have transited through its territory. This agreement would turn Tunisia into what Bisiaux calls the “migratory dumpster” of Europe. This, ironically, brings to mind the 2020’s scandal where 120,000 tons of Italian waste were imported to be buried in Tunisia’s soil. The scandal laid bare the truth of what Tunisia, if not the entire African continent represents to European governments.
Despite the painful implication, Bisiaux’s “migratory dumpster” describes, to a fault, Europe’s attitude towards Africa. While Africa’s resources present solutions to empty European reservoirs, its people are perceived as a problem to dispose of for the EU, and its territories a literal dumpster. Nevertheless, the ugly truth remains that such disregard for the dignity of the Tunisian people was only possible because of the weakness and toady of what is supposed to be a sovereign state and because of the infestation of its internal dynamics with long years of corruption.