Is The Swiss-Tunisian Migration Partnership Truly A 'Win-Win' Relationship?

(MENAFN- Swissinfo) Twelve years ago, Switzerland and Tunisia signed an MOU defining migration policies between the two countries. The goal was to control the influx of Tunisian migrants into Switzerland while training young professionals from both countries. Hailed then as a“win-win”, SWI swissinfo analyses how successful the partnership has been and what challenges it raises today.

This content was published on April 5, 2024 - 09:00 9 minutes

An award-winning journalist and Head of the Arabic Department at SWI swissinfo. She has worked for several Arab and International media outlets before moving to Switzerland in 2021. She covers human rights, migration, and foreign affairs.

  • More from this author
  • Arabic Department
  • العربية ar هل الشراكة بين سويسرا وتونس في مجال الهجرة مكسب فعلاً لكلا الطرفين؟ Read more: هل الشراكة بين سويسرا وتونس في مجال الهجرة مكسب فعلاً لكلا الطرفين؟

In 2011, a surge in the number of Tunisian asylum-seekers arriving in Switzerland pushed the two countries to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU), which laid the ground for a formal migration cooperation agreement. It was based on two pillars. Switzerland agreed to an exchange of young professionals on short-term visas. In exchange, Tunisia accepted to re-admit rejected asylum-seekers.

The MOU came as a response to the increase in illegal migration out of Tunisia following what was known as the Arab Spring and the revolution that toppled then-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, in power since 1987. The Tunisian state was no longer able to secure its borders as a result.

These bilateral migration agreements were not new. In addition to Tunisia, Switzerland has seven similar partnerships with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Nigeria, Serbia, and Sri Lanka. It has also concluded readmission agreements with about 52 countries, and professional training agreements with 14.

External Content

These agreements were controversial at the time. They are all the more so today, as the European Union tightens its borders and outsources its migration policies to third countries. The United Kingdom's plan to send some asylum seekers to Rwanda to have their claims processed there has come under fire. Last year, the UK Supreme Court ruled the plan unlawful, arguing it breaches the European Convention on Human Rights.

Readmission is nothing but“a legal description of what is in fact forced deportation,” says Majdi Karbai, a migration activist and former member of the Tunisian parliament.

“Switzerland, like the European Union countries, makes Tunisia accept the deportation of its citizens in exchange for a certain quota of regular entry visas,” he says.

More than a decade after the Swiss-Tunisian agreement was implemented, the figures show a contrasted picture of how successful the policy was. While readmission and the number of Tunisians illegally entering Switzerland, according to Swiss authorities, has remained low, which was one of the declared goals of the agreement, so far Tunisia has benefited little from the training of its youth.

Tunisia has readmitted 451 people in agreement with Switzerland. Meanwhile, another 402 returned voluntarily between 2014 and 2023, according to statistics provided by the State Secretariat for Migration (SEM).

External Content

Karbai argues the partnership was always a“win-lose” relationship, as“there are many complications that prevent from even fully benefiting from that quota, such as the procedures for obtaining a visa and the conditions for fulfilling it”. Quota numbers are not made public.

Asked about its assessment of the outcomes of the readmission partnership, the SEM responded in an email:“The number of people concerned by voluntary and involuntary returns remains relatively low. Similarly, there are relatively few asylum applications and irregular arrivals in Switzerland.”

External Content

According to the agreement, Switzerland covers the expenses of the return trip on a commercial flight and gives an undisclosed amount of money to each rejected asylum-seeker, allowing them on paper to“create favourable conditions for their social and economic reintegration”. For its part, Tunisia pledges to take back rejected asylum-seekers.

A total of 5,742 people left Switzerland last year, either voluntarily or forcibly. This represents a 19% increase compared to 2022.

Dangers ahead

One aspect of readmission which is of greatest concern to human rights defenders is that a state can readmit non-citizens on the grounds they have just transited through its borders on their journey towards Europe.

Theoretically, Tunisia could readmit asylum-seekers in Switzerland that have no identification papers: many of those who make the crossing destroy them because it makes deportation more difficult. In practice, this has not been applied. But this may change as the EU hardens its stance on illegal migration.

“All countries are studying this possibility,” Karbai says. This means that a migrant from Mali that has transited through Tunisia on their way to Europe can be sent back to Tunisia. This is a problem because Tunisia potentially could become a host country for rejected asylum-seekers, which it does not want to be.

Another cause of concern is that Switzerland rejects most asylum requests on the basis that Tunisia is considered a safe country, a fact that NGOs and activists argue is no longer true. The Freedom in the World country report published in 2024 ranks Tunisia as“partly free”.

“Violence has indeed returned in Tunisia: attacks on minorities, including the LGBT community, and violations of bodily integrity through anal examination,” Karbai says.

“Yet, Europe ignores this so that it can continue deportation through migration agreements and preparations to make Tunisia a country of resettlement.”

Furthermore, asylum-seekers and irregular migrants that have been readmitted often try to make the journey back to Europe once more. This is the case of one Tunisian migrant contacted by SWI who was readmitted in 2016. In a confidential interview with SWI, he confirmed he was preparing to make the sea crossing again from Tunisia.

Financing first employment and internships

Even a less controversial aspect of the agreement, that of allowing a limited number of qualified workers for a restricted amount of time, poses questions. Does Tunisia actually benefit from these programmes, as is intended? The agreements between the two countries clearly states that Switzerland will train young professionals with the aim
of them returning to their home country with newly acquired skills. The agreement stipulates that up to 150 young professionals in each country can benefit from the programme each year. But the programmes have proved difficult to implement, and few have benefited from them. Between 2015 and 2023, only 174 Tunisians participated in training programmes in Switzerland. Meanwhile, only one person from Switzerland benefitted from similar programmes in Tunisia.

External Content

“In general, the Swiss labour market is more interesting for Tunisian youth than the Tunisian labour market is for Swiss youth,” the SEM
explains to SWI, adding that the agreement between Tunisia and Switzerland in the field of youth professional exchange is, despite the weak recorded numbers,“the third most interesting agreement used after the agreements concluded with the United States and Canada.”

“Perspectives” represents one of the projects implemented by Switzerland and Tunisia within the framework of the Young Professionals Exchange Agreement.

In effect, the total number of young professionals enrolled in the programme by September 2026 will only be 200 young professionals, with 150 to be reintegrated into the Tunisian labour market, according to Theres Meyer, Deputy Director of Corporate Affairs and Communications at Swisscontact, an organisation whose role is to help Tunisians find training programmes in Switzerland.

Challenges for Tunisians wanting to find an internship or first employment include their field of expertise and administrative hurdles.

“Perspectives” seeks to“mobilise the Tunisian diaspora in the long term and support it in investing, creating job opportunities, and contributing to social and economic growth in Tunisia,” Meyer says.

Insaf Neili returned to Tunisia after an eight-month internship at an engineering firm in Switzerland. Courtesy of Insaf Neili

Insaf Naeli, a 25-year-old engineering student, benefitted from the programme as an intern in an architecture firm.
She has just returned to Tunisia after more than eight months in Switzerland.

“[This was] an opportunity to improve my knowledge and skills considering that experienced people surround me,” she tells SWI.

The engineer-to-be believes that the differences in construction methods and legislation between Switzerland and Tunisia allows her“to ask more questions and learn better.”

She now aims to launch her own startup and plans to remain in Tunisia in the medium term to develop her entrepreneurial work. She does not intend to settle there permanently. Ultimately, she wants to find work opportunities in Europe before returning at a later stage to Tunisia to share her expertise and experience.

It is difficult to find statistics on those who have settled in Tunisia after benefiting from training programmes and those who have left the country once again to pursue experiences in other countries.

Despite the questions raised by such readmission agreements and the small number of Tunisian youth that have benefitted from the young professional exchange agreement, the SEM confirmed to SWI that“the migration partnership with Tunisia has been working very well since 2012”.

Edited by Virginie Mangin/gw

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI swissinfo certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here . Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at ... .



Legal Disclaimer:
MENAFN provides the information “as is” without warranty of any kind. We do not accept any responsibility or liability for the accuracy, content, images, videos, licenses, completeness, legality, or reliability of the information contained in this article. If you have any complaints or copyright issues related to this article, kindly contact the provider above.