The Shadow of the EU Migration Deals with North African Countries

Desert under blue sky Photo:

A year-long joint investigation by The Washington Post and Lighthouse Reports reveals that the European Union and individual European nations support and finance aggressive operations by governments in North Africa to detain and dump tens of thousands of migrants annually in remote areas, including barren deserts.

The main outcomes of the investigation

Records and interviews reveal that European funds were used to train personnel and purchase equipment for units involved in desert dumps and human rights violations. Migrants have been pushed back into the most inhospitable parts of North Africa, where they face abandonment without food or water, kidnapping, extortion, sale as human chattel, torture, sexual violence, and, in the worst-case scenario, death.

According to testimony and documents, Spanish security forces in Mauritania photographed and reviewed lists of migrants before forcing them to travel to Mali and leaving them to wander for days in an area where violent Islamist groups operate.
According to filmed footage, verified images, migrant testimony, and official interviews, vehicles of the same make and model as those provided by European countries to local security forces rounded up Black migrants on the streets or transported them from detention centers to remote regions in Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.

European officials have held internal discussions about some of the abusive practices since at least 2019, after being alerted to allegations in reports by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Frontex, the EU border agency.

The EU-North African migrant deal

Last year, the E.U. recorded 380 227 irregular border arrivals, the third increase in three years and the highest number since the region’s Syrian-led refugee crisis of 2015 to 2016. The political fallout has Europe scrambling to turn North Africa into a cordon to curb illegal entries.

Tunisia, along with the other North African states, are common departure points for asylum seekers attempting to reach the shores of Europe, allowing them to stop the boats and, eventually, reduce migration. The EU gladly pays for their efforts. The agreement with Tunis last year covered a variety of topics, including trade, investment, and green energy. According to an official press release from the EU Commission (EC), the financial assistance program will be completed in the amount of EUR 150 million.

In addition, Egypt will receive €87 million from the European Union this year for maritime search and rescue operations and border security. The most recent agreement with Mauritania include the €210 million deal “to support Mauritania to control migration and take action against people trafficker.”

The EU provided more than 400 million euros to Tunisia, Morocco and Mauritania between 2015 and 2021 under its largest migration fund.

The strategy, which includes EU funds and investment projects for recipient nations, has widespread support, including from Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, Greece’s Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Belgium’s Alexander De Croo, and Spain’s Pedro Sánchez, who have previously joined von der Leyen on official trips.

Possible European Involvement in Unlawful “Desert Dumps”

The investigation, which focuses on Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania, three countries with some of the most extensive EU partnerships, represents the most comprehensive attempt yet to document European knowledge of and involvement in anti-migrant operations in North Africa. The report is based on firsthand observations by journalists, analysis of visual evidence, geospatial mapping, internal EU documents, and interviews with 50 migrants, European and North African officials, and others involved in the operations. Many of the migrants agreed to speak on the condition that only their first names be used, for fear of retaliation.

Visual evidence and testimony were used to verify 11 dumps of up to 90 migrants in Tunisia’s desert near the borders with Libya and Algeria, including one as recent as this month.

Additionally, migrants were handed over at the Libyan border and detained. According to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya and humanitarian organizations, at least 29 people were killed and dozens more were missing after being dumped or expelled from Tunisia near the Libyan border.

A spokesperson for the European Commission said in a statement that migrant management aid to North African countries is intended to combat human trafficking and “defend the rights” of migrants. The bloc, according to the statement, aims to monitor programs through “spot verification missions,” “monitoring exercises,” and external evaluations.

Senior officials from Tunisia, Morocco, and Mauritania denied racial profiling and dumping migrants in remote areas. They insisted on respecting migrant rights, despite reports from Tunisia and Mauritania that some migrants had been returned or deported across their arid borders.
In an interview, the women recalled seeing “White” officers who Mauritanian officials told them were Spanish police before being loaded onto a deportation bus.

Deportation with the Help of EU funds?

Many of the vehicles used by Mauritanian authorities to detain and deport migrants were purchased with Spanish funds, according to a senior European official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. Reporters on the ground filmed Toyota pickup trucks entering and exiting detention facilities of the same make and model as those provided by the Spanish development agency FIIAPP and the Spanish Interior Ministry. These include Toyota Hilux pickups supplied by Spain in 2019 with the stated purpose of being used by Mauritanian authorities to combat “illegal migration,” according to tenders.

According to a report from European Parliament members who visited Mauritania in December, a Spanish coast guard team was present as migrants attempted a sea crossing and were returned to shore. According to the report, after screening the migrants, the majority were “swiftly conducted to the border.” Gilles Lebreton, a member of the European Parliament from the French far right who was on the mission, confirmed that officials were informed of deportations to the borders with Mali and Senegal.

Security forces in Tunisia have at least 143 Nissan Navara pickup trucks provided by Italy and Germany between 2017 and 2023 to “fight human traffickers” or “combat irregular immigration and organized crime,” according to tenders and posts on those countries’ embassy Facebook accounts. Moussa and his cousin claimed that they were forced, along with other migrants, into an identical make and model vehicle.

Italy’s Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment, while the Interior Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.In a statement, Germany’s Interior Ministry acknowledged that there will be limited transfers of “refugees and migrants to the Libyan-Tunisian and Algerian-Tunisian border region in the summer of 2023,” and that Berlin has “repeatedly made clear to Tunisian partners” that migrants’ human rights “must be respected,” calling the issue “a regular topic of discussion.”


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