Italy pitches $5.9bn development plan to curb migration from Africa

Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hosts dozens of African leaders and diplomats at Rome summit

Giorgia Meloni, centre, is using Italy's G7 presidency to push her agenda of co-operation with Africa to stem migration. AP
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Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni pitched her flagship development plan to African leaders on Monday, offering them billions of dollars to raise their people’s living standards so that they stop heading north to Europe.

Ms Meloni addressed dozens of African leaders and diplomats including Tunisia’s President Kais Saied, the prime ministers of Libya and Morocco and ministers from Egypt and Algeria, at a summit in Rome.

Promising to help Africa benefit from its vast natural resources, Ms Meloni set out her vision for a “partnership of equals” that steers away from a colonial-era “predatory” mindset but also turns its back on a “charitable posture”.

She came armed with a promise of €5.5 billion ($5.95 billion) of investment, to come from a range of sources including loans, grants and guarantees and draw on existing Italian climate and development funds.

Italy, which is using its current presidency of the G7 to push its Africa agenda, hopes to tackle the root causes of Mediterranean migration, which brings tens of thousands of people to Italian shores every year.

Ms Meloni was elected on an anti-migration platform in 2022 at the head of Italy’s most hard-right government since the Second World War, but has struggled to bring down numbers crossing the Mediterranean.

More than 150,000 people arrived in Italy from across the Mediterranean in 2023, the most since 2016, according to UN refugee agency UNHCR. Many had travelled from West African countries such as Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire. Almost 1,900 were reported dead or missing.

“We want to free up African energy to guarantee younger generations a right which to date has been denied,” Ms Meloni told the summit in an opening address.

“Because here in Europe we talk a lot about the right to emigrate, but we rarely talk about guaranteeing the right to not be forced to emigrate.”

African leaders broadly welcomed the goal of stemming emigration to Europe while stressing that Ms Meloni’s words must be matched by actions. African Union Commission chair Moussa Faki Mahamat said he would have liked more consultation in advance.

Morocco said the summit "represents an opportunity to strengthen the foundations of this relationship", including food and energy security, economic development and managing illegal migration.

Europe has sometimes struggled to win African countries as geopolitical allies, with many preferring to stay neutral on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine despite its dire consequences for food security.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called for a “moment of intense and renewed co-operation between Africa and Europe” as she gave her blessing to what Italy calls the Mattei Plan.

“We must crack down on smugglers who trade on human life. Smugglers put hundreds of thousands of lives in peril,” said Ms von der Leyen, who said co-operation with Africa should include legal migration routes, on which Ms Meloni has softened her tone.

“We offer more opportunities to come to Europe legally so that people can move, learn and bring their new expertise back home. And we co-operate on the return of irregular migrants because mobility must be managed by law, and not by the smugglers,” she said.

A recent EU deal on migration aims to strike a compromise with frontline countries such as Italy by asking other countries to share the burden of accommodating migrants in return for tougher measures at the bloc’s external borders.

Italy also plans to put migration high on the agenda when leaders of the G7 countries – the US, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – meet this summer in Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot.

The Mediterranean-adjacent venue is meant to show the West reaching out to the rest of the world, and is also close to where many migrants arrive on flimsy boats from North Africa.

Updated: January 29, 2024, 2:41 PM