With eyes on September’s federal elections and in need of a political win, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made her first official diplomatic visit to Tunisia on March 3, where she discussed the two countries’ shared immigration concerns and sought to assure the German electorate that security is her first priority.
Standing next to her Tunisian counterpart, President Beji Caid Essebsi, Merkel announced new plans to repatriate Tunisian citizens. “We have agreed with Tunisia to send back 1,500 Tunisians to Tunisia who have been refused [permission] to stay in Germany… Those who want to return voluntarily will be eligible to receive aid.”
The deal, which will speed up the deportation of rejected Tunisian asylum seekers in exchange for $264 million in German aid, was especially critical for Merkel, who has faced mounting pressure from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as millions of German citizens, who want her to curb the number of migrants and refugees coming into the country. Germany deported a record number — 80,000 — of rejected migrants in 2016, and expects that number to rise in 2017.
“The sooner Tunisia starts recovering its citizens, the higher chances for Merkel of regaining the German public trust,” Amri Nizar, a research fellow at research group Tunisia in Transition, told VICE News.
Migration and security were always going to be the biggest issues on the agenda for both countries. Though Germany has been a vocal supporter of Tunisia’s democratic transition since its 2011 revolution that ousted dictator Zine Abidine Ben Ali, it still tends to view the North African nation through a lens of security and terrorism. “Tunisia itself is perceived as insecure and as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups,” Elena Dück, a doctoral candidate at Passau University, told VICE News. “There is a fear that Tunisia might export terrorism into the European Union and Germany.”
Tunisian nationals have been behind a series of recent attacks that have terrorized both Europe and Tunisia. On Feb.1, a Tunisian man involved in several terror attacks in his home country was arrested in Frankfurt; suspected of planning an attack in Germany. This came mere months after Tunisian national Anis Amri rammed a truck into a crowded Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people and bringing the country to a screeching halt. After an investigation, Germany determined that Tunisian bureaucratic delays had slowed the deportation of Amri, a rejected asylum seeker living under numerous false aliases.
In August 2016, another Tunisian, Mohamed Bouhlel, attacked a crowded street in Nice in a similar fashion, killing 84 people. These large-scale terror attacks, along with the sexual assaults in Cologne on New Year’s Eve 2015, in which German media widely described the perpetrators to be from Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria,’ have contributed to Tunisia’s negative image.
Tunisia itself hasn’t been spared from extremists either. The Tunisian parliament is housed in the same complex as the Bardo Museum, the site of a 2015 terror attack that claimed the lives of 21 foreigners and Tunisian nationals. As Merkel addressed the room, the significance of this was not lost on her. She referenced the attacks in her speech, presenting Tunisia and Germany as equal partners against violent extremism. “Just as we are united in the detestation of the crimes, so we also need our forces united in the fight against terrorism,” she said.
In truth, the number of Tunisian irregular migrants in Germany is “not massive,” notes Lorena Lando, chef de mission at the UN’s International Organization for Migration in Tunisia. “Tunisia was historically a place of emigration and a point of transfer.” Germany receives many more migrants from Libya, Syria, and Turkey.
In February, Tunisia and Germany had several conversations regarding Tunisia’s migration policy, with Merkel’s interior minister seriously suggesting that Tunisia open a refugee camp. The proposal was outright rejected by Tunisia. “They don’t want a situation like Choucha anymore,” said Lando, referencing the refugee camp in the south that hosted thousands of mostly sub-Saharan African migrants. Several dozen still remain, stuck in limbo. “Our capacities do not qualify us into being a host country for refugees,” said Nizar.
Whatever tensions the countries might have felt during previous meetings were not present on Friday. And though both parties reached a deal that benefits both of them, the problems that push people to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean remain. For Tunisians, it’s mainly a lack of regional development and youth unemployment. “The governance of migration has to be viewed in the longer term. Mobility is here to stay,” said Lando, suggesting alternative forms of migration, like seasonal work or safer opportunities to enter and exit countries legally.
In the past, Merkel has voiced her support for addressing the root causes of migration. She reiterated those claims on Friday. Referencing the aid donation, she said “the funds are for rural development, small and medium enterprises, but mainly for youths… who especially need job training and employment opportunities.” How successfully the Tunisian government will use that aid remains to be seen.
Sarah Souli is a freelance journalist based in Tunis, writing on politics and culture for Vice, Al Jazeera, The Economist, Al Monitor and others. She tweets @sgsouli