In Italy, even a pet poodle can spark a political fight about migration.
When an image of a family of irregular Tunisian migrants arriving on the island of Lampedusa wearing straw sunhats and accompanied by their pet dog began circulating on social media, far-right politicians seized on the image.
They claimed it was evidence that migrants were not destitute or conflict survivors in need of sympathy, but more akin to well-off tourists. “Arriving in droves, even with poodles,” said League leader and former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.
If Italian voters perceive a new migration surge is brewing, that could help reverse Salvini’s flagging poll ratings ahead of upcoming regional elections.
Even though the numbers of arrivals from North Africa remain relatively low, there are signs that political instability and the coronavirus crisis are driving more people from Tunisia — whose citizens usually are not given refugee status in the EU — to make the trip across the Mediterranean.
Since the start of the year, around 15,000 migrants have arrived — higher than the 4,039 in 2019 but under the 18,890 figure in 2018.
With the government in Tunis struggling to keep the state financially afloat, the country could turn into a major headache for Rome and the EU, just as the bloc is about to embark on a new round of negotiations in the fall on how to deal collectively with irregular migration.
With the warmer summer weather prompting more migrants to make the perilous journey, Libya is usually the main disembarkation point. But this year, “in terms of arrivals in Italy you have more arrivals from Tunisia than from Libya,” Vincent Cochetel, the U.N. Refugee Agency’s special envoy for the Central Mediterranean, said.
Data from Italy’s Interior Ministry does not indicate a new migration crisis. Since the start of the year, around 15,000 migrants have arrived — higher than the 4,039 in 2019 but under the 18,890 figure in 2018. The numbers are a far cry from the 180,000 sea arrivals at the height of the crisis in 2016.
But what has changed is that Tunisians are now the most common nationality among those arriving in Italy — more than a third of the irregular migrants who have made it to shore in 2020 so far, with 5,966 arrivals as of this week. In addition, people from other countries — such as the Ivory Coast — are also departing from Tunisia, as some 50 percent of asylum-seekers working in Tunisia have lost their jobs, Cochetel added.
Numbers from UNHCR also show more people embarking on the journey from Tunisia. In July, 1,851 people were rescued at sea or intercepted by Tunisian authorities. That is a 230 percent increase compared to June 2020 and a 923 percent increase compared to July 2019.
The increase has already prompted a political and diplomatic response. Last month, Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese asked Tunisia to stop the “uncontrolled flow” of people, stressing that it was creating serious issues for Italy’s health system.
And earlier this month, France’s new Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin made his first trip abroad to Rome. That was designed in part to reassure the Italian government that Paris, the former colonial power in Tunisia, will lend a hand.
Tunisia was seen as the country that emerged as the one success story of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s. But economic and social problems have deteriorated since, and the pandemic has only made things worse. In June, Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh warned the country’s parliament that “all state enterprises are in bankruptcy ” and so “the next battle is to save the state.” But in July, he stepped down, plunging the country into an even deeper political and economic crisis.
Currently, there is an efficient, if limited, mechanism to send arrivals who do not qualify for asylum back home in the form of a return agreement between Rome and Tunis, says Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration.
The agreement has been suspended until recently due to the pandemic, but it allows the return of 320 people a month. “For a long time, the Italian government has been seeking to finalise a deal with Tunisia to increase these numbers,” said Di Giacomo.
It may need to. The uptick in migration from Tunisia could be a sign of things to come as North African nations struggle to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic, say migration experts.
“Departures from Tunisia are the most problematic for the time being but we could see an increase also from Algeria as young people, unemployed … they don’t see political and economic solutions for their problem,” said Cochetel.