Tunisia Faces Economic Crisis Amidst Migrant Surge

Years of economic and political challenges have driven thousands of migrants to attempt to flee to the EU since Tunisia began its transition to democracy. Located at the northernmost point of the continent, Tunisia is a popular departure point for refugees attempting to reach Europe via Italy, many of whom come from Sub-Saharan Africa, Syria, and Sudan. While UN reports show that over 12,000 people have made the crossing so far this year, hundreds have also died, with unprecedented numbers of bodies washing up on shore. The surge in migrants has prompted xenophobic rhetoric from Tunisia’s increasingly authoritarian president, Kais Saied, who has made unbased claims that migrants coming from elsewhere in Africa have been contributing to economic problems and are undermining Tunisia’s demographic character. Worryingly, these claims echo the ‘great replacement theory,’ an extremist conspiracy theory that has been linked to multiple racially motivated attacks throughout the world.

To make matters worse, Tunisia’s political and economic situation has been struggling since its democratic turn following the Arab Spring protests in 2011, including problems with inflation, unemployment, and trade balances that have plagued the country. To address these issues, Tunisia has already accepted two loans from the IMF totalling four point sixty-four billion dollars. A third IMF loan of one point nine billion dollars was worked out and agreed on until it was cancelled by Saied in April 2023 in response to the conditions set by the IMF. These include the kinds of austerity measures usually attributed to IMF assistance including cutting subsidies and public sector wages, as well as privatizations of state enterprises.

While these measures have the potential to hurt large portions of society, it is clear that Tunisia is in dire need of economic assistance of some kind. European leaders have warned that if Tunisia does not receive aid soon, the already unprecedented waves of migrants bound for Europe could risk surging even further. On top of this, defaulting on its debts could only bring catastrophic consequences. However, any economic assistance must focus on long term collective benefits in order to truly help vulnerable people. This means first and foremost that Saied was right in declining the IMF’s loan and especially the conditions that come with it. As evidenced by the preceding two loans, and the lack of concrete progress that was made since, another conditional assistance package that further erodes social protections would not bring lasting relief. Ultimately, aid focused on economic needs must not come at the expense of human needs. For example, eliminating subsidies on food and fuel may improve Tunisia’s immediate economic situation, but it should not be done without an alternative that ensures access to these fundamental goods for poor individuals.

Foreign assistance should be worked out with a cooperative focus. This means working with Tunisians to understand what the needs are, and how economic development would benefit them the most. This does not only mean working with the Tunisian government, but also with human rights groups and other community organizations. Other world leaders could have a role to play in this as well. Since American and European leaders have already stressed the need for economic assistance to Tunisia, they could be important voices in the discussion around the terms and conditions that this assistance would entail. This means that if aid is coming from international institutions like the IMF, these foreign leaders could pressure them to make the loans conditional on beneficial social reforms and economic policies that support the poor and vulnerable, rather than harmful austerity measures. Already, France and the United States are two countries who have made their aid conditional on Tunisia working out a deal with the IMF. In order to find a lasting solution, this emphasis on the IMF would need to be left behind. This is of course dependent on the ability of the Tunisian government to act transparently and reverse its authoritarian trends.

Overall, while Tunisia’s situation may be complex, solutions aimed at its immediate economic concerns must be implemented with long term social and political well being in mind.