where is the migration issue in Tunisia, facing sub-Saharan migrants, and in Japan, a historically closed country?

While Tunisia, linked since 2023 to a memorandum of understanding with the EU, is struggling to contain the departures of migrants to Europe, Japan is opening up to economic immigration almost in secret. Our correspondents on site describe the situation.

Article written by

franceinfo – Mathieu Galtier, Karyn Nishimura

Radio France


Reading time: 6 min

The remains of boats used by migrants to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe are scattered along the port of El-Amra, in the Tunisian governorate of Sfax, on April 24, 2024. (FETHI BELAID / AFP)

To contain immigration in destination countries, certain agreements signed with transit countries are accompanied by large sums paid to the latter, to help them contain the departures of migrants. The memorandum of understanding between the European Union and Tunisia, signed in July 2023, was presented as a model in Brussels. It provides an envelope of 105 million euros to help the country manage the migration issue. However, the increasingly strong repression of which migrants are victims is undermining the image of Tunisia as a safe country.

Japan is known for having an extremely restrictive immigrant acceptance policy, and even more so regarding the right to asylum. However, the country is experiencing a sharp demographic decline and has an increasing need for labor.

In Tunisia, the president hunts down sub-Saharans threatening to “change the demographics” of the country

In Tunisia, sub-Saharans in an irregular situation are taken by bus to the Libyan and Algerian borders. In Tunis, the police destroyed the camps set up in front of the headquarters of UN agencies at the beginning of May. It pushed migrants back out of the capital. In the Sfax region, the main departure point for boats, the National Guard burns the makeshift tents set up in the olive fields.

Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed welcomed last week the return of more than 400 migrants to the Libyan border. But Libya and Algeria do not welcome these populations either, who therefore return clandestinely to Tunisia. These operations are the third phase of a repressive policy begun in February 2023. The Head of State then denounced the influx of sub-Saharans coming “change the demographics” from the country. Then, under popular pressure, the police evacuated the migrants who had found refuge in public gardens in the center of Sfax. Today, the strategy is therefore to drive them out of the olive groves, one of the country’s main riches.

Faced with this security tightening, NGOs remain silent, because they themselves are being targeted. Last week, around ten leaders of associations which help migrants were arrested. Most of them are accused of money laundering. On Monday, during a national security council, Kaïs Saïed described certain NGO leaders as traitors and mercenaries. As a result, the High Commission for Refugees can no longer receive potential asylum seekers, because the association which manages appointments for it is closed.

UNHCR declines to comment. The European Union, France and Italy are also silent. In these times of the European campaign, diplomats are playing low profile. And, the European Union has already started its partnership with Tunisia signed last year. This fall it paid 67 million euros. The money should be used to renovate coast guard boats and equip them with thermal cameras and radars to better monitor departures for Europe.

In Japan, economic immigration welcomed with complete discretion

In Japan, the situation is quite paradoxical. 15 years ago, the government had considered a big plan to bring in 10 million foreigners, but the use of the word “immigrant” had frightened the nationalist right. So officially, there is no immigration policy. But in reality, there are still more and more foreigners in Japan.

The country needs it economically. Upon his return to power in 2012, Shinzo Abe favored the entry of foreign workers but without using the bogey term “immigration policy” and without giving many advantages to these immigrants. Currently, 3.5 million foreigners live in Japan, of whom more than 2 million work. The aim of the current executive is to emphasize this, but always avoiding the word “immigrant”, as Prime Minister Fumio Kishida does in Parliament: “So that we build a society of symbiosis with foreignershe declares, the government must first clarify its vision of the future and join forces with the regions and associations to responsibly implement an integration policy.”

Japan has found the trick: the definition of the word immigrant goes only to holders of permanent resident status. This represents just under 900,000 people. The others are, so to speak, strangers passing through, who have come to work, but who are not intended to stay too long. Japan’s decreasing population does not favor the idea of ​​integrating foreigners. Economic necessity is the only one that the hard right can accept. And again, with a lot of skepticism. Naoki Hyakuta, the number one of the Conservative Party of Japan, a new formation created after the death of Shinzo Abe, considers his successor Fumio Kishida too permissive: “Of course we can cover the needs of factories and other workplaces by bringing in foreignershe asserts, and it is positive for Japan. But the question is whether the negative aspects are not more important. The Prime Minister talks about ‘symbiosis with foreigners’, but is it really possible to live with people completely different from us ? Look at what is happening in Europe, you will understand.”

So most of the visa statuses created are for economic reasons and what the hard right criticizes is the absence of a defined number and precise nature of acceptable foreigners. She wants a real integration policy that will make it possible to supervise newcomers.

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