The Differentiated and Repressive Treatment of Irregular Tunisian Migrants in Italy


Roberto Calarco


Time to read

5 Minutes

Guest post by Roberto Calarco. Roberto is doctor of sociology at the university Sorbonne Paris Nord and university of Milan. His research focuses on the role of humanitarian organisations within the European border and migration governance field.

sea with rocks

Between 1999 and 2004 the Strait of Sicily gradually became the most crossed Italian sea border. As a result, the management of migration in the area became increasingly characterised by a tension between security and humanitarian imperatives, gradually making the externalisation of migration controls one of Italy’s key strategies. In particular, in 1998, the left-wing government introduced the system of flows decrees, established yearly, which defined the quota of legal entry for workers. Flows decrees have been exploited in bilateral relations with neighbouring countries, to obtain their cooperation in containing “irregular” migration and building up a system of increasingly externalised border controls.

In this post, I examine the case of Tunisia as an example of these externalisation strategies. The first readmission agreement between Italy and Tunisia was signed in 1998. In exchange for more quotas to be reserved for Tunisian citizens, the Italian government secured the cooperation of the neighbouring government in controlling “irregular” migration. Under the agreement, Italy provided significant sums of money, technical means and police cooperation. Interestingly, when the Italian financial provision stopped in 2001, a rise in the number of migrant arrivals by sea to Sicily was registered: this pushed Italy to renegotiate agreements with Tunisia in 2003 and to include a significant increase in quotas in the flows decree adopted in 2004. 

From the beginning of 2000s to the Mare Nostrum operation (2013)

Since at least the beginning of the last decade, North-African, and especially Tunisian migrants, arriving in Italy through the Mediterranean Sea are afforded a differentiated treatment: they are more likely to be categorized as “economic migrants”, be detained, arbitrarily receive rejection orders and be repatriated. In this respect, some scholars have criticised the overall border management system on the southern Italian shores by highlighting that “Egyptian and Tunisian migrants, once disembarked, are usually not allowed access to the asylum procedure: they are issued a repatriation order and are either immediately returned to their countries of origin (on the basis of existing bilateral readmission agreements) or end up in pre-removal detention ” (see work by Pastore and Roman).

In 2011, the year of the so called “Arab Spring”, more than 60.000 Tunisian citizens arrived in Italy. Those who reached the Italian shores before the 5th of April 2011 received a permit of stay on humanitarian grounds while those who had arrived after that date were treated as “irregulars” and thus they were detained or repatriated. During the same period, non-Tunisian migrants that came from Libya after April 2011 were channelled within the Civil Protection reception system and relevant asylum procedures. At the same time, the Italian government was involved in direct push-backs at sea, especially of Tunisian migrants. While the UNHCR argued that the situation of each person must be examined individually, its spokesperson at the time stated that Tunisians could often be considered “economic migrants. The framing of Tunisians as “economic migrants” can be understood within a wider institutional discourse depicting their migration as mainly a voluntary one. Against this context, unsurprisingly, the likelihood of receiving rejection orders was higher for migrants coming from North-African countries. These kinds of practices have been repeatedly denounced by civil-society actors and UNHCR as well.

The Hotspot approach period

Less than one year after the end of the Mare Nostrum operation in 2014, the European Union faced the so called “refugee crisis” of 2015. What has been called as the “hotspot approach” has been implemented as a short-term measure to improve identification and fingerprinting procedures in the management of irregular migration in front-line states, such as Italy and Greece. The term hotspot indicates both a centre for the first reception of migrants as well as a method of work involving heterogeneous actors (both state and non-state) responsible for the swift identification, fingerprinting and filtering of migrants. Front-line states, like Italy and Greece, benefited from the support provided by European Union agencies (e.g., Frontex, Europol and the European Asylum Support Office) and from funds allocated to face the ‘emergency.’

Within the framework of the Italian hotspot approach, North-African migrants (and especially Tunisians) were more likely to be considered as ‘economic migrants’ and to be repatriated. According to interviews collected during my PhD research in Sicily, Tunisian migrants were also more likely to be held in hotspots for a variable period of time. In Pozzallo and Messina while migrants could usually exit from the hotspot centre after the completion of identification and fingerprinting procedures, Tunisian citizens were often obliged to stay inside. As reported to me by some key informants, Tunisian migrants were often held inside the Pozzallo hotspot until they were repatriated, usually from Palermo. A similar procedure was followed in the Trapani hotspot and on the island of Lampedusa too.

The Covid19 pandemic period

Over the last three years, Italian authorities have escalated their repressive treatment of Tunisian migrants. In 2019 Tunisia was included within the list of “safe countries of origin”, which had an impact on the evaluation of Tunisians’ asylum claims. In 2020, Tunisian migrants were the majority inside Italian hotspots: 11.183 people, mainly men and minors. In the same year, a total of 4.387 migrants were detained in Italian detention centres, of which 2.623 were Tunisians. The Italian government exploited the Covid19 pandemic to exacerbate the already restrictive border control measures, and to increase the implementation of unlawful practices. Ships were used in which migrants were obliged to spend a period of quarantine before entering Italian territory. While these measures are not completely new, they can be considered a turning point within Italian border control strategies. In this case, the pandemic has been instrumentally used by the Italian government to justify the development of a floating carceral regime. Against this context, the protection and care of both migrants and EU citizens were employed to legitimise the further increase in migrant containment and expulsion. In fact, in many cases these practices de facto implied the prolonged detention of migrants and increased their chances to be repatriated. Tunisian migrants have been again the most affected nationality.  In addition, in 2020 the Italian Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation discussed a new agreement with the Tunisian government; shortly after, the repatriation of Tunisian migrants from Italy significantly increased.


The treatment afforded to Tunisian citizens is mainly based on, and legitimised by, the dichotomy between “voluntary” and “forced” migration. This (di)vision is based on the simplistic idea that there can be a clear distinction between asylum seekers in need of protection and “economic migrants”. This rationale underpins EU and member states’ discourses and practices and contribute to perpetuating processes of migrants differential inclusion. As shown by the UNHCR perception of Tunisians as mostly “economic migrants” described above, non-state actors too, (re)produce and legitimise this division. In fact, the example of the UNHCR shows that non-state actors can reinforce borders – grasped as socially constructed selective mechanisms – through the uncritical perpetuation of dominant labels and categorisations of migrants (i.e. the distinction between “real” asylum seekers and “economic migrants”).

Even though a progressive expansion of European external limits characterises the EU border management regime and justifies the “Fortress Europe” metaphor, it is nonetheless true that this growing fortification does not imply the total closure of EU’s borders. Rather, as the example of the Tunisian citizens in Italy shows, the European Union can be understood as a gated community, whereby irregular immigrants are filtered and differentially included within Global North societies.

How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

R. Calarco. (2023) The Differentiated and Repressive Treatment of Irregular Tunisian Migrants in Italy. Available at: Accessed on: 28/09/2023

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