Tunisia was ruled as a police state for over two decades. The deposed president Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali was “the man with the iron fists” par excellence. The country was ironically referred to as a “safe and secure” haven. Yet the Tunisian revolution had revealed the fragility behind this façade of security. In particular, following the Arab Spring uprisings, border security became a major concern, with existing challenges magnified and new threats like political assassinations emerging. In this transitional context, Tunisia has turned into a corridor for trafficking of all kinds, both goods and people.
From a geopolitical perspective, Tunisia is a hotspot, bordered by Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast. It is also burdened by relatively long borders, including land borders that extend 900 kilometers with Algeria and 459 kilometers with Libya and a stretch of coastline 1,148 kilometers long that borders the Mediterranean Sea – though still over 100 kilometers from Italy’s Southernmost island of Lampedusa.
Equally important is the question of who is in charge to deal with Tunisia’s border security challenges. Indeed, Tunisian borders are guarded by a multiplicity of security actors, including the military (with the Ministry of Defense as their supervisory authority), National Guards (affiliated to the Ministry of Interior), and Customs (under the Ministry of Finance). With multiple controlling hierarchies, Tunisia’s new government must also deal with an uncertain level of cooperation within its security sector, a good example being the apparent tense relation between the Army and National Guards.
An assessment of Tunisia’s borders reveals numerous problems, among them the porous nature of the borders and corruption of borders official, closely tied to organized crime along the country’s periphery. The Tunisian government simply lacks the resources to cover the border in its entirety. Indeed, the country’s security forces suffer from a critical lack of appropriate training and suitable material and equipment, as evidenced by the numerous deaths and injuries when national guards and soldiers were deployed to combat terrorists who retreated to Mount Chaambi, close to the Algerian border, where approximately 30 died in military operations.
The constant changing governments is a critical underlying component behind this situation. Five prime ministers have alternated over the past three years, resulting in no clear strategy. With insufficient time and other pressing issues to tackle, each new government starts over by a formulating its own strategy. As a result, there is no continuity to the state’s approach towards borders security. Chaos in neighboring Libya serves as a recent complicating factor, with its deteriorating security situation and numerous weapons in the hands of different militias moving freely in and out of the country.
In addition, Tunisia’s marginalized border communities depend mainly on the informal economy. So far, the state has not set a clear development strategy for bordering regions, often referring to this region as a “no man’s land.” The inhabitants, having fallen out of the history and geography of the country, must therefore depend on themselves to ensure their daily living.
Mapping the different threats on the Tunisian borders lead us to defining two main threats: the movement of goods and movement of people. The former involves mainly weapons from Libya (small arms) and all kind of household goods (oil, clothing) as well as drugs and alcohol (cigarettes, Moroccan cannabis, and Hashish). The latter includes the smuggling of illegal migrants, with Tunisia at the same time a country of destination (especially from Libya) and country of transit (mainly from Sub-Saharan Africa), though there is a shortage of official data on this subject. In terms of outward migration, the first destination is often Lampadusa, Italy . According to official sources from the Ministry of Interior, the number of Tunisians arrested trying to illegally leave the country was 1,422 in 2013, while the number of non -Tunisians numbered 1,153 for that year.
Another side of people smuggling involves “Jihadists” networks, involving a number of different terrorist networks active in Tunisia, such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb; Ansaar Chariaa, designated by the Tunisian Government as a “terrorist organization” in August 2013 (followed by the US Department of State in January 2014); and Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi, linked to both Al-Qaeda and Ansaar Chariaa.
Finally, a new form of jihadsm has emerged: Jihad Al Nikah, or sexual jihad, which entail simply prostitution networks formed under the name of Islam. Networks are recruiting women for the so called “sex jihad” in Syria, promising them paradise. In September 2013, in a session in the Tunisian National Assembly, Tunisian Minister of Interior affirmed the rumors around the recruitment of Tunisian girls and women to be performing the “Jihed Al Nikah” in Syria, with Lotfi Ben Jeddou even declaring that roughly 100 women came back from Syria carrying sexual diseases.
How did Tunisian authorities respond?
First, the government opted for a financial answer, with an increase in the budget of both the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Defense. By 2014, the former had its budget increased to 2.27 billion TND (Tunisian dinar) and the latter increased to 1.5 billion TND, with this extra funding to be spent on better equipment and materials for the ministries’ respective security services.
Second, Tunisian security forces have taken part in military solutions, such as the temporary closing borders. For example, the Tunisian-Libyan border crossing at Ras Jedir was closed on numerous occasions since the revolution for “preventive reasons,” while a buffer zone was created in the south of the country along the borders with Libya and Algeria. Any access to the buffer zone, whether for working and simply for sightseeing reasons, requires authorization by the local governor. Military authorities are also entitled to transform this buffer zone into a partly or completely closed area.
Tunisia’s government has also declared certain areas around Mount Chaambi and neighboring mountainous terrains in the west of the country (e.g., Mounts Sammama, Salloum, and Meghila) to be closed military areas. And its National Security Council is currently discussing the creation a borders protection command.
So far, these measures have been deemed partially adequate, with security operations continuing to be carried in the mountainous areas. Importantly, the frequency of the terrorist activities and the level of goods/people smuggling has decreased. However, it should be noted that the peak time for illegal migration via maritime routes starts when the sea is relatively calm in April, so no data is available on this area at the time of writing.
Eya Jrad is a PhD candidate and researcher at the Faculty of Legal, Political and Social Sciences of Tunis, University of Tunis. Her fields of interest include security sector, anti-corruption, and good governance.