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EU wishes to "step up" cooperation on migration with Tunisia

From left, Dutch P¨M Mark Rutte, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Tunisian President Kais Saied, and Italian Premier Giorgia meloni meet in Tunis, on June 1   -  
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Italian Premier Office/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved


European leaders visiting Tunisia Sunday (June 11) held out the promise of more than 1 billion euros in financial aid as well as investments in undersea data cables and renewable energy in an effort to stem migration from its shores to Europe and restore economic stability to the North African country.

Tunisia president hosted the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and the European Commission for talks aimed at smoothing the way for an international financial bailout of the increasingly troubled country. Support from Tunisian President Kais Saied is crucial to any European Union deal to curb migration.

On the eve of the talks, Saied made an unannounced visit to a migrant camp in the coastal city of Sfax, a central jumping-off point for boat journeys crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. 

Saied spoke with families living in the camp, and pleaded for international aid for Africans who converge on Tunisia as a transit point to reach Europe. He added his country was not the keeper of Europe's borders.

His words, and sympathetic images posted on the president's Facebook page, contrasted sharply with Saied's stance earlier this year, when he stoked racist abuse of Black African migrants in Tunisia with a speech railing against a perceived plot to erase his country's Arab identity.

The president and Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden met Sunday (June 11) with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

After the talks, von der Leyen announced a five-point program to support Tunisia, including up to 1.05 billion euros ($1.1 billion in aid for Tunisia's indebted budget. The plan will be discussed with all 27 EU countries at their next summit [Editor's Note: It will take place on June 29 and 30], she said.

In addition to the budgetary aid, the EU is discussing investment in high-speed broadband and other digital infrastructure for Tunisia, and 300 million euros in hydrogen and other renewable energy projects, von der Leyen said.

The plan also includes 100 million euros for Tunisian authorities to carry out search-and-rescue operations for migrants and anti-smuggling operations, she said. Amid criticism from migrant advocacy groups about forced repatriations, von der Leyen and Rutte insisted the program would respect human rights.

Business model of smugglers

The aim is to _"kill that cynical business model of the boat smuggler. Migration is at this moment one of the most important issues facing all of us,"_Rutte from the Netherlands said.

Stemming migration is especially important for the far-right Meloni, who was making her second trip in a week to Tunisia. Italy is the destination for most Europe-bound migrants leaving from the North African nation, whose economy is teetering toward collapse.

Meloni welcomed Sunday's announcements and said she hoped they paved the way for Tunisia to receive $1.9 billion in stalled International Monetary Fund support.

Saied has balked at conditions for the IMF money, which include cuts to subsidies on flour and fuel, cuts to the large public administration sector, and the privatization of loss-making public companies.

The president warns such moves would unleash social unrest, and bristles at what he calls Western diktats. The population is already restive, and some of them disillusioned with both Saied’s leadership and the country’s decade-long experiment with democracy.

That has pushed more and more Tunisians to risk dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. Tunisia is also a major transit point for others seeking to migrate: sub-Saharan Africans make up the majority of those who leave from Tunisia’s shores.

"Tunisia is a priority, because destabilization in Tunisia would have serious repercussions on the stability of all Northern Africa, and those repercussions inevitably arrive here," Meloni said Thursday.

Saied has said that addressing his country's problems requires not only improved security but also "tools to eliminate misery, poverty and deprivation."

A downgraded default rating

The Fitch ratings agency further downgraded Tunisia's default rating Friday, meaning the country is inching closer to potentially defaulting on its debt. The agency cited the government's failure to pursue the reforms needed to free up the IMF funds.

Tunisia's budget deficit was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and fallout from the war in Ukraine, and the IMF aid was stalled amid political tensions and Saied resistance to the required reforms.

Saied disbanded parliament and had the constitution rewritten to give more power to the presidency, and has overseen a crackdown on opposition figures and independent media.

Saied said Tunisia is struggling to cope with migrants from other African countries who settle in Tunisia or transit through, and called for international aid to fight migrant smuggling networks that "consider these immigrants as merchandise thrown into the sea or the sands of the desert."

He did not address the large numbers of Tunisians leaving his country for Europe.

The visit comes after the EU's member countries on Thursday (June 8) sealed agreement on a plan to share responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization. The plan is still in the early stages.

Italy’s Interior Ministry said that between January and June over 50-thousand migrants have arrived by boat in Italy, compared to just over 20-thousand in the same period in 2022.

Tunisians make up 7% of the total but migrants of other nationalities are increasingly departing from Tunisia rather than Libya.

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