Terror and Covid-19 might force France into open borders rethink

Interior minister: 'We are fighting together the terrorism which has struck several countries in the world'

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin gives a oint press conference with his Tunisian counterpart in the capital Tunis, on November 6, 2020.  Darmanin held talks in Tunisia today on how to tackle Islamist radicalisation, after a deadly attack in Nice last month allegedly carried out by a Tunisian jihadist. / AFP / FETHI BELAID
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With France and much of the EU still reeling from the recent spate of terror attacks across mainland Europe, Paris was showing signs on Friday of beginning to reappraise its attitudes to travel across its borders, both legal and irregular.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin arrived in Tunisia on Friday, and met his Tunisian counterpart, Taoufik Charfeddine, as well as the President, Kais Saied, before departing for Malta and Algeria on Sunday.

Though long planned, it is unlikely that the recent attack in Nice by undocumented Tunisian migrant Brahim Aouissaoui, which killed three, was far from the forefront of people's minds.

Mr Darmanin was ostensibly in the country to negotiate the return of about 20 of the 231 irregular migrants from across the Maghreb and Russian territories that it suspected of having links with known terror organisations.

He used the visit to distinguish between those subject to France's security measures and their religion. "We are fighting together the terrorism which has struck several countries in the world," he told reporters gathered at the Ministry of Interior in Tunis.

"We will continue to exchange information to fight against this ideology, which should not be confused, moreover, with any religion,” he added.

For its part, Tunisia agreed to accept the return of the migrants, subject to certain conditions. "But this must be done in line with conditions and regulations" under international laws and conventions, and "preserving the dignity of the Tunisian" being returned, Charfeddine told reporters.

Mr Damanin's visit comes amid what appears to be a recalibration of France's attitudes to border security and the Schengen Agreement, the treaty governing much of the free movement within the European Union.

Speaking during a visit to the Franco-Spanish border earlier on Friday, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters: "I am in favour of a deep overhaul of Schengen to rethink its organisation and to strengthen our common border security with a proper border force."

He also confirmed that he intended to submit fresh proposals to European Union partners at a summit in December.

Eight people have been killed and more injured during terror attacks across France and Austria since the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, elected to mark the beginning of the trial of those accused of abetting the 2015 attack on its offices by republishing the cartoons that originally gave offence.

President Macron's subsequent defence of the magazine's right to do so during a tribute to slain middle schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who had used the images as part of a lesson on free speech, led to a heightening in international tensions, with countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Kuwait all seeking to condemn France for its actions.

France is far from unique in examining the relationship between illegal migration and security. In July, a UN committee of experts concluded that the arrest in Cyprus of nine Syrians, an Egyptian and a Turkmen – all linked to either ISIS or Al Qaeda affiliated groups – showed the potential that clandestine migration routes offered to terror groups.

Like states across Europe, France is a magnet for the dispossessed, the persecuted and the opportunistic. According to the country's ministry of the interior, anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 illegal migrants make their way to France every year, joining a pool of undocumented residents estimated in 2019 to number anywhere between 300,000 and 400,000.

"The irregular migrant experience in Europe isn't easy, and is often far more economically and socially difficult than North African migrants expect when they leave home," said Matt Herbert, a senior analyst at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime.

"This was true before Covid-19, with the situation becoming progressively more difficult over the last decade,” he added.

“The advent of the pandemic has likely only magnified the challenge. For some this frustration can transform into resentment, leaving some vulnerable to radicalisation. But the process isn't predetermined, nor irreversible, and really is likely an issue in a very, very small minority in the larger migrant population.”

While at pains not to downplay the risk, or the potential carnage any one attack might bring, observers such as the journalist and author, Jason Burke, cautioned against overstating the case.

"This is nothing like the period between 2013 and 2017, when we had a consistently clear and direct threat to Europe," he said referring to ISIS and its ultimately doomed project to build and maintain a caliphate.

Radicalisation remained an issue, Mr Burke said, even though it may be occurring to a lesser degree.