Italy and Tunisia sign three agreements in push to curb migration to Europe

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni signs deals worth hundreds of millions of euros during visit to Tunis

Tunisian President Kais Saied with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni at the presidential palace in Tunis, last June. EPA
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Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni signed three agreements with Tunisia during an official state visit to the North African country on Wednesday.

The agreements are part of a wider European plan to strengthen Tunisia's ability to limit migration to Europe and include a budget support package, a higher education and scientific research deal and a special line of credit for small and medium-sized companies.

Italy will help Tunisia with €105 million ($111.7 million) in state cash and credit lines, Ms Meloni’s office told Reuters, part of Rome’s efforts to boost economic ties with African nations and curb illegal immigration to Europe.

Rome also offered Tunis €50 million in state cash to promote energy efficiency and renewables projects, an official from Ms Meloni’s office said.

Another deal envisages a €55 million credit line to support Tunisian SMEs, the official said.

Ms Meloni’s visit to Tunis is the fourth in less than a year and the first after the announcement of the Mattei plan, in which she promised a €5.5 billion investment package for projects in Africa at a summit in Rome in January.

A critical part of the plan – and a wider EU package – is helping Tunisia control an influx of migrants moving through the country, many from sub-Saharan Africa, as they attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

Thousands die each year attempting to make the journey, often aided by unscrupulous people smugglers, who provide unsafe boats at an extortionate cost.

The UN Migration Agency IOM estimates that at least 2,271 people died trying to cross to Europe through the Mediterranean route last year alone.

Increasingly, many also come from Tunisia and across North Africa, seeking better economic opportunities in Europe.

The Italian PM was joined by a delegation that included Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi, Deputy Foreign Minister Edmondo Cirielli and Higher Education Minister Anna Maria Bernini.

In her previous visits, Ms Meloni promised rigorous support for Tunisia in the form of investment and financial packages to help alleviate the country’s continuing financial crisis.

She has repeated – on several occasions – her government’s stance regarding the need to stabilise the economic situation in Tunisia to prevent more migrants from attempting to cross the Mediterranean and reach Italy's shores.

Tunisian President Kais Saied also repeatedly said his country would not become a transit destination for sub-Saharan migrants attempting to reach Europe.

“Tunisia, which has always treated migrants humanely, refuses to be a transit or settlement [area] for them,” he said during a meeting with high-ranking officials from the National Security Council on Saturday.

Mr Saied also accused international organisations of failing to put in place promised migration policies and leaving Tunisia to single-handedly deal with the crisis and bear its consequences.

“A comprehensive migration approach must be implemented to counter human trafficking networks and no law-abiding countries would approve the existence of illegal situation [in reference to irregular migrants] on its land,” Mr Saied told Ms Meloni at the Carthage presidential palace on Wednesday.

Ms Meloni reassured the Tunisian president that her country did not intend to let Tunisia become a destination or a permanent residence of migrants.

Italy is willing to provide all the necessary support to help the North African country tackle the situation, she said.

“We know that Tunisia cannot become the country of arrival for migrants and co-operation on this [matter] must be strengthened,” she said on Wednesday.

Tunisian activists protested against the Italian delegation's visit in front of its embassy in Tunis and accused Rome of imposing a right-wing migration agenda in Tunisia.

Tunisian civil rights groups also accused Ms Meloni's government of attempting to establish a number of migrants detention centres, as well as fostering official anti-migrant rhetoric.

In the past year, sub-Saharan African migrants have been the subject of a major clampdown in Tunisia, with hundreds expelled from the North African country.

Some were left stranded in the desert between the borders of Algeria, Libya and Tunisia while others were repatriated to their countries.

Mr Saied claimed in February 2023 that there was “a criminal plan to change the demographic structure” of Tunisia and described the arrival of migrants as a form of “occupation”.

Italian Interior Ministry data shows that more than 153,000 migrants reached Italy last year, compared to 105,140 in 2022 and 67,477 in 2021.

Updated: April 17, 2024, 4:10 PM