Then, finding himself unable to address the country’s deep economic crisis, Saied resorted to a textbook populism – attacking scapegoats.
For Saied, that means Black African migrants and asylum seekers — also a favorite target for Europe’s far right. Blamed for all the country’s ills, while dehumanized and defamed by hate speech (uttered by Saied himself), Black Africans in Tunisia have been suffering horrendous abuses, including violence, discrimination and collective expulsion on Tunisia’s land borders, leading to dozens of deaths.
Neither the deal nor the public remarks by “Team Europe” representatives made any reference to Saied’s authoritarianism or the need to end abuses against Black Africans in the country.
Sadly, where Europe is concerned, this isn’t an isolated incident.
As early as 2008, the Italian conservative government led by Silvio Berlusconi struck a migration deal with then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, condemning thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to abusive indefinite detention in the country. Nine years later, as post-Gaddafi Libya descended into lawlessness, Italy’s center-left government led by Paolo Gentiloni reached — with the EU’s blessing — another deal with the former Libyan Government of National Accord, this time purely aimed at curtailing migration.
Legally prohibited from returning people rescued by EU vessels to Libya, European governments also decided to halt their search and rescue operations and pump money and equipment into the “Libyan coast guard,” which was largely made up of militias, warlords and their henchmen, whose brutality against migrants has been amply documented — and continues, with Europe’s complicity, to this day.
In 2016, despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasing authoritarianism, the EU also signed a deal with Turkey to send back Syrian refugees who had reached Greece. The EU provides financial support for border control to countries like Egypt and Morocco as well, countries with leaders who regularly get the red carpet treatment in the EU, regardless of their well-documented abuses, including against migrants and asylum seekers.
These countries are now rumored to be next in line for deals similar to the one with Tunisia, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed as a “blueprint” for the region.
Europe’s determination to curb migration at any cost doesn’t stop at Mediterranean shores either, poisoning other areas of the EU’s external action, including trade and development aid. At the Valletta Summit in 2015, the EU and its member countries had already agreed to condition development funding for African nations on whether they strengthened their border control.
Taken individually, these examples may appear cynical, ill-conceived and shortsighted. But together, they show a well-established strategy, which has moved the EU away from prioritizing rights and values in its foreign policy.
The implications of this deliberate choice are devastating.
First, the EU has been making it tragically clear that its human rights commitments don’t apply to migrants and asylum seekers — especially if they come from Africa or the Middle East. Their death, ill-treatment and suffering are deemed a better alternative than having them on European soil.
Second, while the EU is collectively the world’s biggest humanitarian donor and a leading voice in multilateral human rights fora, its blind support for repressive governments that pledge to keep migrants away amplifies the major double standards in its foreign policy. This erodes the bloc’s credibility as a principled human rights actor, making it harder to rally international backing for the initiatives it wants to lead.
Third, by emboldening oppressors rather than siding with the oppressed, the EU betrays the countless activists, journalists, critics and human rights defenders who keep paying a high price for exposing government corruption and abuse, as they seek a democratic and rights-respecting transition in their countries.
This stance has contributed to the far right’s rise to power and influence across Europe. And for a bloc that still takes key decisions via unanimity, the risk of paralysis is obvious. Furthermore, the rise of the far right threatens not only the rights of migrants and asylum seekers but also of women, LGBTQ+ individuals and other minorities across Europe, as well as adherence to rule of law in a growing number of EU countries.
Sacrificing the rights of migrants and refugees for short-term political gains is not only a morally bankrupt choice, it also contributes to a chain reaction that risks having a disastrous impact on the bloc and its founding values. The next victim of the bloc’s migration obsession may well be the EU itself.
*Claudio Francavilla is a senior EU advocate at Human Rights Watch.