Alissa Pavia, North Africa Initiative associate director, testified before the Alissa Pavia testifies to Canada’s Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights. Below are her prepared remarks on North Africa’s migration crisis.
By way of introduction, my name is Alissa Pavia and I am associate director at the Atlantic Council’s North Africa Program in Washington, DC.
It is an honor to convene with you today to deliberate upon the pressing issue of the major refugee and migration flow affecting the Middle East and North Africa region. I will pay particular attention to the Mediterranean, as this region is a world hotspot for migration and often overlooked.
Chers collègues, je vous remercie pour cette invitation et pour attirant l’attention sur cette région souvent oubliée sur la scène mondiale.
While the world’s attention understandably gravitates towards the conflict between Israel and Hamas and the resultant humanitarian crisis that has displaced over 1.7 million Gazans, we must not overlook the broader issue of significant refugee and migration movements elsewhere.
There exist numerous other vulnerable populations forced to migrate due to dire circumstances in their homelands—groups all too frequently overlooked by the international community. I speak of those migrants and refugees who cross the Mediterranean annually, seeking refuge and a better future elsewhere, enduring perilous sea voyages that endanger their lives and those of their loved ones. Since 2014, over 22,000 individuals have been reported dead or missing at sea, rendering the Mediterranean route the most treacherous for global migrants.
Esteemed senators, migration is an ancient facet of human history, with people perpetually seeking better conditions beyond their homeland’s borders. Yet, certain compelling factors—the so-called push factors—drive mass migration, such as war, famine, poverty, climate change, and political persecution. African and North African nations grapple with these challenges, fostering conditions driving vulnerable individuals to embark on the perilous Mediterranean journey. The last decade has witnessed recurring surges in migration from North Africa to Europe, each cycle presenting distinct challenges and varied causes behind these forced displacements. The year 2023, in particular, marked another of these cyclical uptakes: migration from North Africa to Europe has surged threefold since 2022, leaving southern European nations scrambling for effective solutions to the migration quandary.
Efforts to comprehend the sudden uptick reveal a new migration origin in North Africa: Tunisia. While Libya traditionally held this mantle, Tunisia, particularly the port city of Sfax, has assumed prominence as a significant transit hub for vulnerable individuals from Sub-Saharan Africa. According to the International Organization for Migration, this year, Tunisia witnessed a staggering 260 percent increase in departures compared with the previous year. Concurrently, the number of Tunisians seeking migration has similarly risen, signifying a renewed willingness among local Tunisians to leave their homeland.
While the reasons compelling migration deserve scrutiny, today, I seek not to dwell solely on these push factors. Instead, I implore your attention towards the dire conditions migrants face in North Africa, with a particular focus on Tunisia, given its current role as a migrant hotspot. Moreover, I aim to propose recommendations on how Canada can provide assistance.
Approximately 21,000 Sub-Saharan individuals—including migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees—are estimated to reside in Tunisia. However, since Tunisian President Kais Saied assumed office in 2019, the plight of these migrants has markedly worsened. A turning point for the worse occurred in February when President Saied made public remarks, echoing elements of Camus’ racist “great replacement theory,” accusing black African migrants of intending to alter the country’s demographic composition. Subsequently, migrants faced persecution, with many forcibly evicted from their residences and dismissed from their jobs.
Tensions between locals and migrants escalated further. Regrettably, the situation took a dire turn in July when Tunisian authorities rounded up 1,200 black African migrants from Sfax and forcibly expelled them, leaving them stranded for weeks in the deserts bordering Libya and Algeria. Having personally communicated with some of these affected individuals after my encounters with them during my visit to Tunisia earlier in the year, I received distressing videos, audio recordings, and voice notes pleading for aid, documenting an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. The stranded migrants endured scarcity of food and water, with only the Tunisian Red Crescent permitted access. While approximately 600 migrants have been readmitted to Tunisia since then, the whereabouts of the remainder remain uncertain, with an estimated two dozen fatalities.
During this crisis, European leaders convened with President Saied to discuss curbing the influx of migrants reaching Europe’s southern shores. Shockingly, no mention was made of the stranded migrants, and an agreement was struck to financially support Tunisia’s coast guard in intercepting migrants. Once again, the international system witnessed a failure as ‘Team Europe’ inadvertently empowered Tunisia’s authoritarian leader, signaling that racism and human rights violations would not impede financial aid.
Senators, I recognize the considerable challenges each nation confronts in managing surges of irregular migration. However, your influence lies in ensuring that global lives receive humanity and dignity, safeguarding migrants and vulnerable communities through mechanisms supported and financed by many among us: multilateral institutions like the United Nations, bilateral agreements, and diplomatic and trade relations.
Although Tunisia might appear distant from Canada, concerns about migrant treatment in Tunisia and the Mediterranean significantly impact the international community. Mass displacements wreak havoc across nations, disrupting stability, and fostering tensions among countries. A rise in far-right populism often correlates with these mass displacements, leading to growing xenophobia towards migrants and refugees in Western countries.
Europe, a close ally of Canada, has faced significant challenges due to mass displacement, weakening its unity in the face of global issues. It’s in Canada’s best interest to prevent Europe from encountering such challenges as it would inevitably strain Canada-Europe relations. Moreover, Canada has crucial ties with Tunisia, funding pivotal development and counterterrorism projects. It’s imperative that Canadian taxpayer money doesn’t support criminal acts by Tunisia’s national guard.
Firstly, Canada should ensure that institutions operating in Tunisia work diligently to locate and repatriate stranded migrants. Both the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees bear responsibility for their welfare and repatriation.
Secondly, during bilateral discussions with Tunisia’s interior ministry and defense ministry, Canada must stipulate that assistance won’t be provided if it contributes to human rights abuses, such as forced expulsions of migrants.
Lastly, the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights should conduct a comprehensive study on humanitarian aid to Tunisia, reassessing whether the current president, Kais Saied, meets the criteria for state assistance.
Thank you for your attention.
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