Italy calls on nations to tackle human traffickers at migrant conference

About 80,000 migrants have arrived on Italian coast since January compared with 33,000 in same period last year

Italy is hosting a conference to tackle its growing migrant crisis. EPA
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Italy hosted an international conference on Sunday to discuss ways to tackle the growing number of migrants arriving on its shores.

Since January, 80,000 migrants have arrived on its coast, compared with 33,000 in the same period last year.

Representatives of Mediterranean countries were among those attending the conference in Rome, with the aim of extending an EU-backed deal with Tunisia to curb the arrival of migrants to European shores high on the agenda.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the conference the pact with Tunisia could serve as a model for others.

"We want our agreement with Tunisia to be a template, a blueprint for the future, for partnerships with other countries in the region," she said.

Italy's far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni also invited leaders from the EU and international financial institutions.

She called on nations to fight together against human traffickers.

In contrast with her past hard-line rhetoric, she said her government was open to taking in more people through legal routes as "Europe and Italy need immigration".

"Mass illegal immigration harms each and every one of us," she said. "No one benefits from this, except criminal groups who get rich at the expense of the most fragile and use their strength even against the governments."

The conference, which aims to build a partnership among states on several topics, was hosting representatives from countries such as Tunisia, the UAE, Cyprus and Libya.

"International human traffickers are not welcome in our country," Tunisian President Kais Saied told the conference.

During the 2022 election campaign that brought her to power, Ms Meloni vowed to “stop the disembarkation” of migrants in Italy.

But while the government has put obstacles in the path of humanitarian ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, it has failed to stop the departures, most of which mostly originate in Tunisia and Libya.

Italy and the European Commission have sought to step up engagement with Tunisia, promising funding if the country stems emigration from its territory.

Ms Meloni has also sought to act as an intermediary between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund after a $2 billion bailout package for the North African country has stalled amid an IMF demand for structural reforms.

Last week, the EU signed an agreement with Tunisia that provides €105 million in aid to prevent the departure of migrant boats and combat people smugglers.

The deal also provides for more illegal Tunisians to be repatriated and for sub-Saharan Africans in Tunisia to be sent back to their countries of origin.

A much larger EU package to Tunisia, a long-term loan of about €900 million proposed by Ms Von der Leyen in June, is conditional on the approval of the IMF loan.

A senior European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the EU was hoping for similar partnerships with Egypt and Morocco.

“We must co-operate with the countries of North Africa, even if to do so we have to accept that they are not perfect democracies,” they told AFP.

“There is unity in the EU on this principle.”

But Federica Infantino, a researcher at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute in Florence, said the new deal would change little.

“You can't think of migration as the water that comes out of the tap, to be turned on and off as certain politicians see fit”, Ms Infantino said.

Human rights groups and charities that rescue migrants attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing have also criticised the move.

Human Rights Watch called the deal “a new low in the European Union's efforts to curb migrants' arrivals at any cost” that “pays only lip service to human rights”.

“It shows that Europe has learnt nothing from its complicity in the horrendous abuses of migrants in Libya”, the group said last week.

“The Mediterranean is not only a graveyard. It is a crime scene”, tweeted German NGO Sea-Watch.

For independent researcher Yves Pascouau, dialogue between Europe and the countries of migrants' departure is positive, as are attempts to grow trade and investments in green energy.

But as long as migration policy depends on European interior ministers, the issue will only be tackled from a security point of view, Pascouau noted.

“What is lacking in the relationship between the EU and third countries is any long-term thinking,” he said.

According to the UN, more than 100,000 migrants arrived by sea in Europe – mostly in Italy – in the first six months of this year, from the coasts of North Africa, Turkey and Lebanon. There were more than 189,000 such arrivals last year.

Updated: July 23, 2023, 2:28 PM