Tunisia, EU sign landmark agreement to address migration challenges

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Tunisia and the European Union (EU) have officially ratified a memorandum of understanding, solidifying a “strategic and comprehensive partnership” aimed at tackling irregular migration and enhancing economic cooperation between the EU and Tunisia. The North African nation serves as a major transit route for migrants and refugees attempting to reach Europe, leading to a surge in recent months.

On Sunday, European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni engaged in renewed discussions with Tunisian President Kais Saied. The rise in the number of migrants and refugees departing from Tunisia to Europe was a key topic of conversation. During a gathering at the Tunisian presidential palace, Von der Leyen praised the agreement as an investment in “shared prosperity and stability.”

Von der Leyen highlighted the historical and geographical ties between Tunisia and the EU, emphasizing their shared strategic interests. President Saied emphasized the urgent need for a collective agreement to combat what he referred to as “inhuman migration,” attributing its prevalence to criminal networks. He stressed the necessity of promptly establishing binding agreements based on the principles outlined in the memorandum.

Prime Minister Rutte emphasized that the agreement would contribute to the fight against human traffickers. He stated that it encompasses measures aimed at disrupting the business operations of smugglers, strengthening border control, improving registration and return procedures, and other essential actions to halt irregular migration. Prime Minister Meloni hailed the agreement as a significant step towards addressing the migration crisis and extended an invitation to President Saied to participate in an international migration conference on July 23.

Last month, the three leaders visited Tunisia, and the European Commission announced its intention to provide Tunisia with an aid package of up to 900 million euros ($1,010 million). This assistance aims to support Tunisia amidst its economic challenges and the growing influx of migrants and refugees transiting through the country en route to Europe. As part of the aid announced by Von der Leyen on Sunday, a 10-million euro ($11 million) program will facilitate student exchanges, while an additional 65 million euros ($73 million) in EU funding will be allocated to modernize Tunisian schools.

Regarding migration, Von der Leyen emphasized the crucial need for effective cooperation between the EU and Tunisia. She outlined specific initiatives, including an anti-smuggling partnership, enhanced coordination in search and rescue operations, and cooperation on border management. Von der Leyen pledged 100 million euros ($112 million) towards these joint efforts, reiterating a commitment she had previously announced during the leaders’ earlier visit.

As of Friday, the Italian interior ministry reported over 75,000 migrants arriving by boat on the Italian coast since the beginning of the year, compared to approximately 31,900 during the same period last year.

Experts view this agreement as an attempt by Europe to reshape African mobility, particularly in North Africa, which shares close proximity with the EU. Yasmine Akrimi, a researcher at the Brussels International Center, stated that the EU has long pursued such a deal to transform North African countries into “disembarkation platforms” for migrants and refugees. She mentioned Italy’s desire to designate Tunisia as a “safe third country,” whereby individuals passing through Tunisia could potentially be returned there.

Italy remains a common destination for refugees and migrants fleeing from various regions in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The port of Sfax, Tunisia’s second-largest city, serves as a departure point for many sub-Saharan migrants, seeking a better life in Europe and undertaking the perilous Mediterranean crossing in makeshift boats. Tragically, in March, 29 asylum seekers lost their lives while attempting this dangerous journey.

Recent incidents have highlighted the challenges faced by Tunisia. On July 3, after the killing of a Tunisian man during a confrontation between locals and migrants, racial tensions erupted in Sfax, resulting in hundreds of migrants either fleeing or being forced out of the city. Subsequently, Libyan border guards rescued numerous migrants who were reportedly abandoned in the desert by Tunisian authorities without adequate supplies. The Tunisian Red Crescent provided shelter to more than 600 migrants taken to the militarized zone and border town of Ras Jedir since July 3.

Amine Snoussi, an independent journalist in Tunis, noted a rise in anti-migrant sentiment within Tunisia over the past few weeks. With no legal framework in place to accommodate migrants, this sentiment has led to evictions and job terminations, making it increasingly difficult for migrants to envision a future in Tunisia if the situation persists.

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