The Tunisian government reacted surprisingly fast: Shortly after a visit from Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and European Union leader Ursula von der Leyen to the migrant reception center on the Italian island of Lampedusa, Tunisian authorities moved hundreds of migrants out of Sfax harbor.
Sfax is a common point of departure for African migrants trying to get to Lampedusa, which is 188 kilometers (117 miles) away. The comparatively short distance makes it an achievable goal for those trying to enter Europe without a visa. Most of the irregular migrants on Lampedusa have come from Sfax.
According to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), authorities there evacuated around 500 people from the port city, sending them to rural areas or to other cities in Tunisia.
Using migration as weapon?
This situation gives Tunisian authorities a lot of power over European politicians, for whom irregular migration is a political hot potato. And over the past few weeks, it seems as though the Tunisian government has been testing that power.
The recent visit to Lampedusa by senior European politicians, von der Leyen and Meloni, was in reaction to the high numbers of asylum seekers and irregular migrants arriving on the Italian island. The Tunisian government's move to evacuate would-be migrants from Sfax harbor immediately afterwards seemed to be signaling just how easily Tunisia could impact the flow of irregular immigrants into Europe.
The current situation was preceded by a July visit from senior EU politicians to Tunis. At that time, both sides agreed to a future deal on irregular migration. From the European perspective, the most important aim of the pact was to try to reduce such migration in the future.
In order to facilitate this, the EU said it would give €100 million ($107 million) to Tunisia this year for border management, to combat people smuggling, and for search and rescue operations. The package of measures also includes a number of opportunities for further economic and other cooperation with Tunisia — although the package has yet to be ratified and it is certainly still considered controversial because of the increasingly authoritarian nature of Tunisia's government and its president, Kais Saied.
The deal does not seem to have had much impact so far. Last week, the situation in Lampedusa caused concern when around 6,800 migrants made it to Lampedusa from Tunisia in just 24 hours, on an estimated 120 small boats.
According to Italian officials, more than 127,000 irregular migrants have reached Italy by sea so far this year. Over the same period last year, only 65,500 made the journey. Indeed, by the end of the year, the numbers may top those from 2016, the year which saw more than 181,000 arrivals, the highest number ever.
'No coincidence' migrants were moved
The fact that hundreds of migrants were moved from Sfax to the Tunisian interior this past weekend can be seen as a signal, said Johannes Kadura, head of the Tunis office of Germany's Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
"It is certainly no coincidence that the authorities are not taking tougher action against the migrants," he told DW. "They want to clearly show that it is possible for them to work against the people smugglers and to stop migrants from setting out to sea."
It is also quite likely that the Tunisian authorities could send the opposite kind of signal, too. Some observers believe that the Tunisian government isn't satisfied with the agreement made with the EU, Kadura noted. They believe that Tunisian authorities will allow some migrants to set out for Europe in order to put more pressure on the Europeans. It shows how there could be cooperation but there could also be confrontation, he said.
"In this way, it [the Tunisian government] is signaling that it's keeping various options open," Kadura explained.
In Tunis expectations are high, added Christian Hanelt, an expert on the Middle East at the Bertelsmann Foundation. The fates of Italy's Meloni and Tunisia's Saied are intertwined, the expert told DW. Saied hopes that Meloni, who has promised Italian voters she will curb irregular migration, will provide him with financial support without too many conditions. "He hopes the EU will equip Tunisian security structures and its coastguard," Hanelt said.
At the same time, Saied is also hoping talks with Meloni and other EU politicians might help ease the growing diplomatic isolation he is experiencing due to his own increasingly authoritarian behavior, Hanelt continued.
Meloni has been able to extend diplomatic contacts to Saied. But when it comes to financial assistance, the Italian far-right politician is unable to take things much further because this is connected to political and human rights issues as well as Tunisia's agreement to undertake the economic reforms. "And Saied is opposed to that," Hanelt said.
In fact it's quite likely that irregular migration towards the EU will continue to increase, Hanelt said. A lot of would-be migrants see the talks between the Tunisian government and EU politicians as a sign that such movement will only become more difficult in the near future. Tunisia's unhappy economic state — which makes it harder for migrants to stay there and work — as well as racist remarks by the Tunisian president and racist violence in Tunisia also make the trip towards Lampedusa more urgent, Hanelt explained.
"But it's hard to say whether Saied is using this for his own interests," the expert added. "You can't rule out that the Tunisian security authorities are simply looking away. One should emphasize that there's no evidence of this so far."
Abandoning migrants in the desert
Even though it has yet to be finalized, the EU's agreement with Tunisia has already come in for plenty of criticism inside Europe.
Tunisia has been heftily criticized for the way in which it has dealt with immigrants in the recent past. At the beginning of July, Tunisian authorities transported around 800 migrants into the desert near the Libyan-Tunisian border. They left them there without food, water or shelter. Earlier in the year, Saied regularly made inflammatory statements about migrants in Tunisia, which led to a wave of populist violence against them.
The Tunisian government has not appeared to be particularly bothered about such criticism. Earlier this month, it denied entry to a group of European Parliament politicians who were planning an official visit there to form an opinion on the human rights situation in Tunisia. In Arabic-language media, Saied said the move had been made because he rejects external interference in Tunisia's domestic affairs.
"The EU shouldn't act as though it could not have foreseen this and that this is a surprise," says the Friedrich Ebert Foundation's Kadura. "When you make these kinds of agreements, you need to ensure that the migrants who are prevented from crossing [to Europe] are also able to return home again, and in a humane way. Europe can't just delegate its responsibilities."
This story was originally published in German.