Italy calls Med migration conference on Tunisia model

Tunisian Red Crescent informs at least 17 Bangladeshi migrants drowned in a shipwreck off Tunisia as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy from LibyaReuters file photo

Italy has invited Mediterranean countries to Rome on Sunday for an “international conference” aimed at extending an EU-backed deal with Tunisia to curb the arrival of migrants to European shores.

Italy’s far-right Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is expecting leaders from the region, the European Union and international financial institutions to meet in the capital, according to a government press release.

The full list of participants is unknown, but Meloni has confirmed the presence of Tunisian President Kais Saied, while the prime ministers of Egypt and Malta, Mostafa Madbouli and Robert Abela, respectively, have both said they will attend.

During the 2022 election campaign that brought her to power, Meloni vowed to “stop the disembarkation” of migrants in Italy, which the government puts at nearly 80,000 coastal arrivals since January, compared to 33,000 in the same period last year.

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 themselves, 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 undertakes to stem emigration from its territory.

Meloni has also sought to act as an intermediary between Tunisia—cash-strapped and on the cusp of a major debt crisis—and the International Monetary Fund, where a nearly $2 billion bailout package for the North African country has stalled amid an IMF demand for structural reforms.

Last week, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia that provides for 105 million euros in direct European aid to prevent the departure of migrant boats and combat smugglers.

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

A much larger EU package to Tunisia, a long-term loan of around 900 million euros proposed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June, is conditional on approval of the IMF loan.

“This partnership with Tunisia must be a model for building new relations with our North African neighbours”, Meloni said last week during a visit to Tunis, where she accompanied von der Leyen and Dutch premier Mark Rutte.

‘Not perfect democracies’

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

“We must cooperate with the countries of North Africa, even if to do so we have to accept that they are not perfect democracies,” a Rome-based ambassador who requested anonymity 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, argued that the new deal with Tunis will 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”, Infantino said.

But for Meloni’s political needs, even if the deal’s objectives are never met, there are “strong symbolic stakes”, she added.

‘Crime scene’

Human rights groups and charities that rescue migrants attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing are up in arms.

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 learned nothing from its complicity in the horrendous abuses of migrants in Libya, the group said Thursday.

“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 a positive, as are attempts to boost 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 to Europe—most to Italy—in the first six months of 2023, from the coasts of North Africa, Turkey and Lebanon.

There were just over 189,000 such arrivals last year.

With fewer than 80,000 asylum applications registered last year, Italy lags behind Germany, France, Spain and Austria.