News | Migration / Flight - Europe - North Africa The Spirit of 1951

The EU’s asylum reform and Tunisia deal are merely the latest steps in its war on migrants


Kais Saïed and Nancy Faeser shake hands.
Tunisian President Kais Saïed shakes hands with visiting German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia, 19 June 2023. Photo: IMAGO / Xinhua

The planned Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is not a new scandal, but the continuation of a policy that right-wing and social democratic parties have pursued for decades, effectively normalizing violence and death along the EU’s external borders. Scandalizing border externalization with recourse to humanitarian and legalistic rhetoric, as recently seen in Tunisia, no longer works — nor did it work against the arming of Libyan and Egyptian police authorities or militias in Sudan. We urgently need new narratives to fight back against border violence.

Sofian Philip Naceur is a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s North Africa Office and works as a freelance journalist.

If the new, far-reaching regulation of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS) is ratified in its current version, the fundamental right to asylum and the 1967 Protocol to the 1951 Geneva Convention will be undermined in an unprecedented manner. Effectively, the right to asylum will be de facto and de jure dismantled across the EU.

Left-wing and progressive voices have expressed shock and horror at the German government’s support of the “reform” alongside other liberal EU administrations, as well as the conclusion of a new border regime deal with Tunisia immediately thereafter — despite the fact that the 2021 coalition agreement between the three parties in the Berlin federal government clearly committed them to substantially undermining the right to asylum and expanding EU border externalization. For instance, the agreement states that asylum procedures in third countries should be “examined”.

Traditionally, outrage over the EU’s and its member states’ border externalization policies mostly targeted figures or parties in the right-wing and extreme right-wing political spectrum. But the current CEAS draft represents the logical continuation of policies pursued by social democratic and liberal parties for decades.

Concepts such as “migration management” — a euphemism for illegalizing refugees while at the same time systematically filtering migration movements according to the economic needs of European and other industrialized economies — were not developed solely in the conservative and right-wing camps. It is no coincidence that the Vienna-based International Center for Migration Policy Development (ICMPD), an organization pivotal in mainstreaming migration management concepts in Europe since its founding in the early 1990s, was chaired by a Swedish Social Democrat from 1993 to 2004.

The times when a humanitarian uproar could be sparked over such developments are over.

In Germany, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), in the opposition at the time, gave its parliamentary approval to the so-called “asylum compromise” back in 1993 alongside the neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). This constitutional amendment is still regarded as the most far-reaching restriction of the fundamental right to asylum in German history.

The fact that SPD and FDP are now once again attempting to dismantle the right to asylum is therefore anything but surprising. In the early 1980s, SPD politicians warned of “floods of fake asylum seekers” and shamelessly advocated for “drastically restricting the right to asylum” and considering “limiting the right to asylum to citizens of European countries”. Forty-one years later, such “proposals” are now to become reality in the form of the CEAS — all that has changed is they toned down the racist rhetoric.

The Spirit of 1951

While the CEAS threatens to completely abolish individual asylum applications and could establish dangerous contingency regulations, we are now also witnessing a formal return to the origins of the architecture of contemporary international refugee law. The non-universal treatment of European refugees on the one hand and non-European refugees on the other, as was particularly blatant with the outbreak of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, sparked outrage here and there, but is in fact in line with the original spirit of the 1951 Geneva Convention.

After all, that convention was tailored exclusively to European refugees after World War II and only became universal law, applicable worldwide and for everyone, with the 1967 Protocol to the convention. The EU’s migration policy of the past decade, but especially since 2022, clearly demonstrates that the spirit of the 1951 Geneva Convention — and not that of the 1967 Protocol — continues to set the tone across the Union.

Border Violence in Tunisia

The fact that the arming of Libyan and Egyptian police authorities or militias in Sudan was imposed with hardly a whimper of protest clearly demonstrates that the language of humanitarianism and legalism fails when seeking to stir up outrage around border externalization deals like the most recent one with Tunisia. That said, the sheer scale of the new agreement with Tunisia’s increasingly authoritarian President Kais Saïed goes far beyond all previous police equipment and training programmes provided by the EU and its member states.

It was only a few months ago, in February 2023, that a statement by Saïed rife with racist agitation and absurd conspiracy theories triggered a weeks-long wave of violence against refugees and migrants across Tunisia, which has since pushed them to flee the North African country at unprecedented levels.

Meanwhile, the EU thanks Saïed for his violent and polemic stance against refugees and migrants by stabilizing his presidency in the form of political support, loans, budgetary aid, as well as police and surveillance equipment deliveries — at a time when the Ministry of the Interior in Tunis is re-emerging as a powerful anti-democratic force. The veritable exodus of refugees, now trying to reach safety on rickety boats headed for Italy in large numbers, continues unabated.

Failing to Spark an Uproar

The pattern is familiar: despite detailed, documented human rights crimes by Libyan authorities involved in anti-migration projects, the EU and its member states began equipping the so-called “Libyan Coast Guard” years ago. The same applies to the Egyptian police and intelligence services, notorious for their systematic human rights violations across the country, or the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a Sudanese militia responsible for serious crimes against humanity in Darfur in the 2000s and currently waging a bloody war across the country. Nevertheless, the RSF was incorporated into the EU border regime in North and East Africa.

If denouncing the torture practices of al-Sisi’s regime in Cairo, the violence against detained refugees by Libyan militias, or the crimes of the RSF fails to attract attention as it is, and some 600 deaths off the Greek coast in June vanish from headlines in only a few days, then trying to cause a scandal over border externalization deals with Tunisia and border violence in the country will not work, either. The times when a humanitarian uproar could be sparked over such developments are over.

We need new counter-strategies — against deals with autocrats, the CEAS, and the exclusionary understanding of refugee rights and protection currently being revived.