File photo: REUTERS/Gabriele Maricchiolo

By Katelin van Zyl

On Friday, 20 October, Italy signed a deal during a visit to Tunis to hire some 4,000 Tunisian workers every year. Italy’s plan is intended to create ‘regular’ (legal – as opposed to ‘irregular’) migration channels for “qualified workers” willing to work in Italy. Italy also reaffirmed its commitment to assist Tunisia in combating migrant smugglers and creating work opportunities for the youth. This follows the Italian parliament’s recent approval of the controversial ‘Cutro’ decree to crack down on irregular migration, by severely limiting a special protection status Italian authorities can grant to migrants who do not qualify for asylum. Tunisia is a destination and transit country for many migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, especially from sub-Saharan Africa. Along with Tunisians themselves, many passing through Tunisia attempt to reach Europe by taking dangerous boat trips across the Mediterranean Sea to nearby countries such as Italy. Italy has received double the number of sea migrant arrivals in 2023 than in 2022 (140,000 so far this year, 91% of whom reportedly arrived via Tunisia). This number only includes those who make it to Italy’s shores, but many more people are either intercepted and returned to the country from which they travelled or perish at sea. Tunisia has said it will only accept deportations of Tunisians found ineligible for asylum, not those from other countries who are denied asylum.

Since 2014, there has been substantial growth in the number of people crossing into Europe via various Mediterranean Sea routes and the Balkan land route. Some countries were initially welcoming towards the foreign nationals from Africa and the Middle East, such as Germany and Sweden, but the influx has also sparked populist protests and the increasing use of anti-immigrant rhetoric by political actors (especially on the political ‘right’), who have voiced concerns about the perceived threats migrants, asylum seekers and refugees pose to Europe’s economic, cultural and security environment. Viewing the flow of migrants and asylum seekers as a problem to be stopped, European governments have funded governments of countries bordering the Mediterranean such as Libya and Tunisia, as well as the governments of countries with major transit hubs, such as Niger, to help restrict the movement of people towards Europe. This strategy is part of what is described as Europe’s policy of ‘border externalisation’. Europe has been criticised for making it increasingly difficult to reach its shores through formal and informal means. Against this backdrop of growing anti-immigrant sentiment and tightening borders, this new deal is at least something positive to celebrate. Even though it will certainly not solve all the challenges and issues around migration and forced displacement, it will make a significant difference in the lives of the approximately 4,000 workers (and their families) who will benefit from this agreement every year and will hopefully lead to greater ‘formal’/’regular’ channels opening up for people on the move. One of the ‘durable solutions’ for refugees is ‘complementary pathways’, which is described by the UNHCR as “safe and regulated avenues that complement refugee resettlement and by which refugees may be admitted to a country and have their international protection needs met while they support themselves to potentially reach a sustainable and lasting solution.” Italy’s deal provides this option for some, but a major concern is the situation of those who are not considered as beneficial to the Italian workforce but are equally or more vulnerable and in need of options for a safer and better future. The Bible tells us to look after the most vulnerable in our society, as we are told this is important to God and pleases Him. (Zechariah 7:10; Isaiah 1:17-23; Isaiah 10:1-4; James 1:27).

The Bible is also full of stories of migration – both forced and voluntary – and we can learn from the hospitality that many cities and households showed to those who were on the move and in need of safe refuge. In Deuteronomy 10:12-21, God links loving the foreigner to fear of the Lord and serving Him. To Israel Moses said: “Circumcise your hearts, therefore, and do not be stiff-necked any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. Fear the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast to him and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.” (Deut 10:16-21).

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For more safe regular channels to open up for migrants, asylum seekers and refugees – not only for the most ‘qualified’ but the most vulnerable too
  • For God to help the Church to honour Him through caring for the most vulnerable in society, including orphans, widows and foreigners
  • For those trapped in places they don’t want to be to encounter the Lord’s love, comfort, hope and mercy