But could Tunisia becomes the El Dorado of the Middle East? It seems like an impossible dream, at least in the near term. Yet, some are daring to dream and improving of the conditions of this Mediterranean country that sits at the strategic crossroads of the Middle East and North Africa, and helping it to control its northern borders with neighbouring Italy.
Irregular migration is growing issue for most Mediterranean countries and security solutions alone are not sufficient to stem the unprecedented flow of illegal immigrants to Italian shores through the Tunisian gate. The issue of migration requires a comprehensive approach to address the various causes that have exacerbated them in recent years.
The small Italian island is no longer able to accommodate immigrants, and the shelters inside it have been filled to exceed the permissible limit many times over. This creates a point of instability in the Mediterranean waters.
The high migration pattern demands new and innovative solutions. The support provided by the European Union in terms of security equipment and material aid to both neighbouring countries, Italy and Tunisia, is no longer enough to deter the growing waves of immigration.
The coronavirus has plunged the world into a "crisis like no other" including Italy and Tunisia, which has badly affected the two countries' trade as well as exacerbated the crisis in the countries from where the migrants are fleeing.
Tunisian-Italian Relations and Immigration
Relations between Tunisia and Italy go back to the first centuries of the Georgian calendar, when the empires of Rome and Carthage dominated the ports of the Mediterranean. Despite the succession of civilisations, the movement of people between the two countries never stopped.
Migration between the two countries in its modern form began in the 17th century, when many Italians immigrated to Tunisia, and continued to do so until the 19th century. Among the immigrants were Italians of Jewish origin who set off from the coastal city of Livorno, known to Tunisians as "Grana".
They were called the "Grana Jews", and all the Jewish people coming from Europe were called by this name. They established a commercial market in the centre of the ancient city that still bears the name Souk al-Grana today. Thanks to their wealth, they were able to flourish and develop trade in the area.
This one small example shows the depth of relations between the two countries, and the role of migration has in enriching and developing both of them. Although circumstances differ at this stage in the history of relations between Tunisia and Italy, the issue of immigration still imposes itself on the agendas of both countries.
Italy now has its own concerns with the rising number of illegal immigrants, whether from Tunisia or from sub-Saharan Africa. It is understandable worry because of the economic burden of unregulated migration, the security and health concerns that come with it.
Tunisia is also trying to protect and beef up its maritime borders. However, these efforts remain limited due to the high financial cost of securing its external borders and the challenging economic and social situation in the country. The unemployment rate rose to record levels, reaching 18 percent, and the GDP declined due to the Corona virus crisis by 21.6 percent, which is a dangerous rate that requires urgent solutions in the medium and long term.
Despite the high level of economic trade between the two countries, Italy ranks third in the list of foreign investments in Tunisia, the volume of its investments in Tunisia is low. Supporting the country’s social, development and educational projects which could represent an inexhaustible source for creating jobs and supporting small and medium enterprises.
Investing in youth and employment would serve as a deterrent and dissuade desperate and unemployed youth to avoid the dangerous migration and work better than the current security solutions.
Anna Maria Bernini, head of the Forza Italia bloc in the Italian Senate, said in a memorandum sent to the Senate that "the growth of unemployment and the lack of prospects are what creates this massive mass exodus," indicating that "activating excellent diplomatic channels, it may help us make our situation more or less clear for a segment of the Tunisian population, who apparently want to migrate by boat. " "Our country does not need exceptional interventions, but rather a specific immigration policy, and a call to the European Union to assume its responsibilities," she added
The role of the European Union
Tunisia needs economic support in this difficult phase to achieve its developmental stakes. It cannot achieve the desired economic takeoff on its own but in cooperation with its European partners. Despite the presence of Tunisia in several European and regional multilateral partnerships and with the 5+5 countries (the West Bank Mediterranean States) or within the framework of the 7+6 group on security, defence and justice, it still needs to deepen its economic relations and military and security cooperation with the countries of the northern Mediterranean Sea in order to complete the path of democratic transition, develop its economy and achieve stability in the Mediterranean basin.
The European Union is now more than ever before required to move forward with supporting the economic and social reforms that Tunisia launched years ago. This will further support Tunisia’s path of transition, local development and governance, especially in the field of infrastructure, education, regional development, and supporting youth initiatives. All of this will help the Tunisian youth to become self-reliant and participate in building Tunisia’s future and move away from the dangerous solutions represented in illegal immigration.
Security solutions have not been and will not be enough alone to end illegal immigration. Creating job opportunities in Tunisia and sub-Saharan countries through direct investments that employ hundreds of thousands of youth, and increasing assistance to these countries without unfair or austerity conditions would improve the standard of living, reduce the unemployment rate and make these countries a more pleasant place.
Italy, Tunisia, and the EU share a single Mediterranean future, and what affects one directly or indirectly affects all. The optimal future for the Mediterranean countries is greater diplomatic, cultural, security and economic cooperation and cohesion.
The hope lies in everyone joining hand and together creating a new and fairer model of immigration.