Photo : Reuters
26 August 2023, Saturday | NIAS Europe Daily Brief #605
The Mediterranean: Continuing Migrant Boat Disasters
On 07 August, BBC reported on a shipwreck near Tunisia’s Kerkennah Islands, with 11 dead and another 44 migrants missing.
On 03 August, two vessels were reported to have sunk near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Italy’s coast guards rescued around 57 people while 33 were missing. Flavio di Giacomo, spokesperson of the International Organization for Migration, said that the migrants were from Guinea and the Ivory Coast. According to survivors’ testimony, they departed from Sfax, a Tunisian port city, before being capsized and rescued by a commercial boat. He also noted that the vessels were frail and could quickly capsize and disintegrate after setting out to the sea.
According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 1800 people have died in the Central Mediterranean in 2023. The number of departures increased compared to last year. According to UNHCR, sea arrivals to Italy are 104,808 in 2023 (year-to-date) compared to 49,792 (year-to-date) in 2022.
Who are the migrants?
Tunisia has become the key transit point for migrants to go to Europe, especially Italy, where the migrant population has substantially increased since 2014 (according to organizations such as Human Rights Watch, UNHCR and IOM working with the migrants the numbers are between 20,000 and 50,000).
The biggest group is those from the Ivory Coast, who represent one-third of the total, followed by citizens of Guinea and Mali. According to a report Africa News, these countries have free visa agreements with Tunisia, indicating that many migrants arrived through legal means.
According to Le Monde diplomatique, the immigration status of a vast majority of migrants hailing from Sub-Saharan African countries is irregular. Even those eligible for visas also face troubles because of the bureaucracy. A fine of around USD 6.50 is charged to those who overstay their visa. Thus, the accumulated debt and the monetary need to go either home or to Europe force the migrants to take up blue-collar jobs where they are paid average salaries even 30 per cent less than Tunisians.
What are the reasons for migration?
First, political instability and violence in Tunisia and Sub-Saharan Africa (countries such as Guinea, Sudan, and South Sudan). The migrants often flee due to extreme poverty, unemployment, political persecution, and political instability in their home countries. When they pass through the North African countries, they face unfair treatment and prejudice from the locals, forcing them to embark on the perilous journey across the Sea. Traditionally, Tunisia has been a transit route used by migrants. The recent outbreaks of conflict and the amplifying insecurity in the region have increased the arrival of Sub-Saharan migrants in the country. The government is often hostile to the migrants. Moreover, in February 2023, Kais Saied, Tunisia’s President, delivered a speech in which he claimed that Sub-Saharan migrants threaten the country’s identity, accelerating migration across the Sea. The country is also facing a political upheaval after Saied rewrote the Constitution in 2021 to concentrate power in his hands.
Secondly, the economic crisis in Tunisia. According to the International Organization for Migration, around 1,600 Tunisians crossed the Mediterranean Sea on smugglers’ boats between January and March 2023, compared to 900 from last year (January to March 2022). Apart from the crackdown on migrants, inflation and food shortages plague the country. Tunisia’s debt has reached 90 per cent of its GDP, increasing the risk of default. Saied also refused to endorse an IMF bailout of USD 1.9 billion, adding to donors’ worry that he would not implement the reforms his administration has promised before disbursement. Moreover, Joseph Borrell, EU’s Foreign Policy chief, warned in March 2023 that the political and economic crisis in Tunisia could fuel a wave of migration into Europe.
Where are they migrating from?
According to UNHCR, from January to July 2023, 104,808 people migrated into Italy from Türkiye, Tunisia and Libya, and Algeria via Sea routes. There are ten most common countries of origin. 26 per cent of the migrants are from Guinea and Ivory Coast (13 per cent each). Followed by Egypt (nine per cent), Tunisia and Bangladesh (eight per cent each), Pakistan (seven per cent), Burkina Faso (six per cent), Cameroon and Mali (four per cent each). In 2022 (between January and July), 21 per cent of the migrants were from Egypt; 20 per cent were from Tunisia, followed by 17 per cent from Bangladesh.
Sofia Bettiza and Robert Plummer, “Forty-one migrants die in shipwreck off Lampedusa,” BBC, 09 August 2023
Charlene Anne Rodrigues and Lauren, “Mother and baby among 13 dead after migrant boats sink off Italian coast,” BBC, 07 August 2023
Emma Bubola, “Dozens of Migrants Die After Boat Sinks in Strait of Sicily,” The New York Times, 09 August 2023
“Sub-Saharans are no longer welcome in Tunisia!” Le Monde diplomatique, 07 August 2023
Lauriane Noelle Vofo Kana, “How did Tunisia become a hostile land for sub-saharan African migrants? [Interview],” Africa News, 10 August 2023
Monica Pinna, “Migrant crisis in the Mediterranean: From Tunisia to Italy, who are those fleeing to Europe?,” Euro News, 01 June 2023
Heba Saleh and Amy Kazmin, “Tunisia’s ‘hostile environment’ pushes migrants across Mediterranean,” Financial Times, 04 April 2023
Vivian Yee, “Europe Pushed Tunisia to Keep Migrants Away. The Result Is Harsh.,” The New York Times, 20 July 2023
“Italy Weekly Snapshot - 21 August 2023,” UNHCR, 21 August 2023
War in Ukraine: Day 548
War on Ground
On 25 August, Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s Foreign Minister, met Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s President, in Kyiv. Talks encompassed Ukraine’s peace plan, preparations for the Global Peace Summit, and concerns over Russia blocking the Black Sea grain route. Earlier, on 18 August, Germany's Bild newspaper revealed plans of Russia, Turkey, and Qatar’s for a fresh grain export pact after Moscow exited the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Under this arrangement, Russia would supply grain mainly to African countries, supported by Qatar, with Turkey managing logistics.
The Moscow View
Claims by Russia
On 25 August, according to TASS, Dmitry Peskov, Kremlin spokesperson, rejected claims of Kremlin involvement in a plane crash involving Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner Group leader. Peskov emphasized the West’s speculative angle and urged reliance on facts. He highlighted the ongoing investigation to establish more details.
On 25 August, Moscow’s Federal Security Service (FSB) accused Kyiv of manipulating Russians to ignite government buildings, warning such acts could lead to 19-year jail terms. Attacks on army offices and rail sabotage have risen since Russia’s troops entered Ukraine. The FSB claims Kyiv recruits Russians online for arson, targeting various groups. Several cases have led to sentences.
On 25 August, Russia’s Defence Ministry announced the downing of 42 Ukrainian drones near Crimea, the largest recent aerial attack on the peninsula, following Kyiv’s claim of a special forces raid. Nine drones were destroyed over Crimea, while 33 were electronically suppressed or crashed before reaching targets.
On 25 August, Russia’s Defence Ministry reported thwarting Ukraine’s attempt to launch an improved S-200 missile for an attack on Russia’s civilian sites. The missile was detected and destroyed over Kaluga Region, preventing the strike.
The West View
Responses from the US and Europe
On 25 August, according to Meduza, Finland’s police apprehended Russia’s ultranationalist Yan Petrovsky, leader of the neo-Nazi paramilitary group “Task Force Rusich,” on Ukraine’s war crime charges. He replaced injured Alexey Milchakov, commander of Task Force Rusich, and fought alongside Russia’s military in Ukraine. Kyiv requested his extradition, confirmed by the Russia’s Embassy.
On 25 August, according to European Pravda, agriculture ministers from Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary will halt Ukraine’s grain imports after 15 September, with possible individual restrictions. They also aim to extend subsidies for grain transit and expand import bans to other products. The EU initially allowed domestic bans until 15 September, but Poland and Hungary’s intent to persist strengthens their stance against lifting restrictions. Ukraine demands EU negotiations, while Poland remains firm on maintaining the ban independently.
On 24 August, the Pentagon announced plans to commence F-16 fighter jet training for Ukraine’s pilots in the US from September. Originally, a European coalition effort led by the Netherlands and Denmark was set for pilot instruction. However, due to capacity constraints, Ukraine will now send several pilots and support personnel for training in the US. The training will begin with English-language courses in Texas, followed by flight training in Arizona. While the F-16s won’t immediately impact Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Zelenskyy anticipates receiving around 61 F-16s from various NATO countries, bolstering the country’s air capabilities.
Dinara Khalilova, “Turkish foreign minister meets with Zelensky in Kyiv,” The Kyiv Independent, 25 August 2023
“Spokesman dismisses lies about Kremlin’s involvement in crash of Prigozhin’s plane,” TASS, 25 August 2023
“Russia warns of 'severe' sentences for arson of state buildings,” Zawya, 25 August 2023
“Russia Says Repelled Large-Scale Ukrainian Drone Attack on Crimea,” The Moscow Times, 25 August 2023
“Russian Air Defense destroys Ukrainian missile in Kaluga Region — Defense Ministry,” TASS, 25 August 2023
“Finland arrests Russian ultra-nationalist wanted in Ukraine for war crimes,” Meduza, 25 August 2023
Joshua Askew, “'Wagner is alive and will live in Belarus', says Lukashenko,” Euronews, 25 August 2023
“Five EU Countries Agreed to Continue Ban on Ukrainian Grain Importing,” European Pravda, 25 August 2023
Jimmy Vielkind, “Western Authorities Investigate Possible Poisonings of Russian Activist and Journalists Living Abroad,” The Wall Street Journal, 25 August 2023
Eric Schmitt and Lara Jakes, “Pentagon Plans to Begin Training Ukrainian Pilots on F-16s in U.S.,” The New York Times, 24 August 2023
Action plan to enhance security at Brussels’ Gare du Midi
On 25 August, Belgium’s government unveiled an action plan to bolster security in and around Brussels’ Gare du Midi, responding to growing concerns about rising crime and drug abuse at the prominent international train station. Alexander De Croo, Prime Minister, and Annelies Verlinden, Interior Minister, stated that the plan aims to address immediate security apprehensions while collaborating with federal and local police, SNCB (railway operator) security, and immigration services to develop longer-term strategies against crime and illegal activities. Measures include homelessness support, addiction treatment, enhanced camera surveillance, and infrastructure changes to improve safety. The move follows calls for assistance from the federal government due to alarming conditions reported by Sophie Dutordoir, CEO of SNCB. (Hanne Cokelaere, “Belgium plans security boost at Gare du Midi after drugs and crime spike,” Politico, 25 August 2023)
Ban on burning Quran
On 25 August, Peter Hummelgaard, Denmark’s Justice Minister, announced a proposed ban on burning religious texts in public places, including the Quran, to prevent inappropriate treatment of sacred objects. While aimed at curbing religious offense, the ban raises debates about free speech and religious expression. The decision reflects Denmark’s attempt to balance between freedom of expression and preventing actions that incite religious tensions, while also acknowledging the sensitivities involved in such matters. (“Denmark to ban Quran burnings, says justice minister,” Deutsche Welle, 25 August 2023)
Calls for resignation of Prime Minister
On 25 August, opposition leaders in Estonia demand Prime Minister Kaja Kallas’s resignation over revelations that her husband’s firm, Stark Logistics, continued business with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. The Center Party and Isamaa party initiated discussions on a no-confidence motion against Kallas. Despite supporting Ukraine against Russia’s aggression, Kallas’s husband’s actions created controversy. Stark Logistics indicated assistance to Estonian clients in accordance with imposed laws and sanctions. Kallas’s Reform Party (Squirrel Party) supporters back her, but polls show majority public opinion favoring her stepping down. Media outlets, including Eesti Päevaleht and Postimees, have called for Kallas to consider resigning. The scandal places Kallas in a politically challenging situation, showcasing the complex balance between personal business dealings and political leadership amidst sensitive international dynamics. (“Turmoil hits Estonian Prime Minister Kallas over husband's Russia ties,” Euronews, 25 August 2023)
Strategic ties with India
On 25 August, during the visit of Narendra Modi, Indian Prime Minister, to Greece, leaders of both countries committed to enhancing trade, defence, and strategic cooperation. The two countries will boost military ties, promote skilled migration, and aim to double bilateral trade by 2030. Aiming to establish direct flights, they also emphasized collaboration in sectors like tourism, pharmaceuticals, and technology. The visit marks a significant step in strengthening the relations between India and Greece after 40 years.The agreement reflects both countries' intent to expand their economic and strategic partnerships, tapping into each other’s strengths to foster growth and collaboration. (“India’s Modi visits Greece, the first visit to the country by an Indian prime minister in 40 years,” Associated Press, 25 August 2023)
Macron outlines wide-ranging goals for future
On 25 August, according to Euronews, Emmanuel Macron, France’s President, discussed a range of objectives in an interview, emphasizing geopolitical influence, immigration reform, climate action, and social issues. He stresses the need for a strong European stance on various fronts, including addressing the crisis in Ukraine and climate change. Macron’s approach to industry is to balance ecological goals with economic needs, advocating for domestic manufacturing and European investments. His push for immigration reform faces political challenges from both the left and right parties, highlighting the complexities of policy implementation in a diverse political landscape. (Gael Camba, “Macron eyes key immigration and economy reforms despite political challenges,” Euronews, 25 August 2023)
Sarkozy to face trial over Gadhafi funding allegations
On 25 August, France prosecutors reported that Nicolas Sarkozy, Former French President, to be tried in 2025 for allegedly accepting money from Moammar Gadhafi, Libyan leader, for his 2007 election campaign. Trial to include 12 co-defendants accused of conspiring to illegally finance the campaign. Charges include concealment of embezzlement, corruption, and illegal campaign financing. Sarkozy could face up to 10 years in jail if convicted. The case marks the most serious legal challenge Sarkozy has faced. (“France: Nicolas Sarkozy to face trial in 2025 over Libya,” Deutsche Welle, 25 August 2023)
Record-breaking cocaine seizure with disturbing labels in Spain
On 25 August, Spanish authorities seized a record-breaking 9.5 tonnes of cocaine hidden in banana boxes in a refrigerated container at the port of Algeciras. The shipment from Ecuador, labeled with swastikas and the word “Hitler,” is believed to belong to a major criminal organization involved in distributing cocaine to European networks. Over 30 European criminal organizations’ logos were detected on the packages. The seizure dealt an unprecedented blow to the criminal group, though no arrests have been made yet. The labels’ link to neo-Nazi groups or coded references is under investigation. This seizure highlights the significant reach of international criminal networks in drug trafficking and their use of symbolism for various purposes. (“Record cocaine haul hidden in Ecuadorean banana shipment intercepted in Spain,” Euronews, 25 August 2023)
New EU Digital Services Act imposes rules on tech giants
On 25 August, according to the BBC, major tech platforms, including Facebook, TikTok, and Google, must comply with the EU Digital Services Act (DSA), which aims to protect users. Platforms with over 45 million EU users, like Alibaba, Amazon, and Twitter, face stringent rules to prevent illegal content, protect rights, and ensure public security. Breaches could result in fines up to six per cent of turnover and service suspension. DSA requires transparency in algorithms and sharing data with researchers. Some platforms have already implemented changes in line with DSA, impacting advertising and content visibility for younger users. The DSA reflects growing concerns over tech giants’ influence and their responsibility to safeguard users’ interests, setting a precedent for digital regulation worldwide. (Chris Vallance, “EU safety laws start to bite for TikTok, Instagram and others,” BBC, 25 August 2023)
Dutch Supreme Court rejects lawsuit against Israeli officials over Gaza airstrike
On 25 August, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld a ruling that former Benny Gantz, Israeli Defence Minister, and Amir Eshel, ex-Air Force Commander, cannot be sued over a 2014 Gaza airstrike. Ismail Ziada, who lost family members in the attack, sought damages, is arguing that the Israelis’ actions constituted war crimes. The court’s decision stems from “functional immunity,” aligning with previous lower court verdicts. Ziada expressed disappointment and is considering an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The case highlights the complex balance between pursuing justice and protecting officials acting on government policies. (Mike Corder, “Dutch Supreme Court confirms immunity of former Israeli officers over a deadly 2014 Gaza airstrike,” Associated Press, 25 August 2023)
US supports North Macedonia’s EU bid amid constitutional changes
On 25 August, Gabriel Escobar, a senior US State Department official, expressed optimism that North Macedonia will successfully navigate politically challenging constitutional changes required for its EU membership bid. North Macedonia is amending its constitution, including adding Bulgarians and other ethnic groups, to satisfy neighboring EU member Bulgaria. The process faces resistance from the main opposition party, VMRO-DPMNE. Escobar, while affirming US support for North Macedonia’s EU aspirations, hopes the amendment process continues. North Macedonia and Albania began EU membership negotiations in 2021, with Bulgaria’s concerns over ethnic representation complicating North Macedonia's accession. (“US official voices hope North Macedonia will be able to proceed with EU membership bid,” Associated Press, 25 August 2023)