Italy hosts immigration conference to extend Tunisia deal
Italian Prime Minister Meloni states that the talks would not only center on support for refugees and legal and illegal immigration but also "the most important... wide cooperation to support development in Africa."
Italy hosted a number of country leaders in Rome on Sunday in order to extend an EU-backed agreement with Tunisia to reduce the number of migrants arriving at European coasts.
When presidents and ministers got ready for the talks, Pope Francis urged them to assist the many individuals who attempt to enter Europe each year in pursuit of a better life as they escape war and poverty.
"The Mediterranean can no longer be the theatre of death and inhumanity," the pontiff said during his weekly Angelus prayer.
Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister of Italy, launched the negotiations shortly after 1100 GMT, and she was scheduled to hold a press conference after 1700 GMT.
Meloni claimed that the talks would not only center on support for refugees and legal and illegal immigration but also "the most important... wide cooperation to support development in Africa."
Far-right Meloni promised to "stop the disembarkation" of migrants in Italy during the election campaign in 2022 that put her in office. According to the government, there have been up to 80,000 coastal arrivals since January, up from 33,000 during the same period last year.
Although the government has placed barriers in the way of aid ships saving migrants in the Mediterranean, it hasn't been able to stop the departures themselves, which primarily come from Tunisia and Libya.
With an eye on reducing migrant flows from Tunisia, Italy and the European Commission have made funding promises in exchange for a stem in migration from the country. The agreement also calls for the return of sub-Saharan African migrants living in Tunisia illegally, as well as additional illegal Tunisians.
In addition, Meloni has attempted to serve as a go-between for the International Monetary Fund and cash-strapped Tunisia, which is on the verge of a serious debt crisis. A roughly $2 billion bailout package for the North African nation has stalled due to IMF demands for structural reforms.
Last week, Tunisia and the EU signed a memorandum of understanding for a "strategic and comprehensive partnership," touching on migration, economic development, and renewable energy.
Last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen offered Tunisia financial assistance worth 105 million euros to support measures preventing illegal migration. Another 150 million euros would be dispatched for immediate support, while another 900 million would serve for long-term assistance. The fund has yet to be released once negotiations with the IMF on a $2 billion loan are approved.
"This partnership with Tunisia must be a model for building new relations with our North African neighbours," Meloni said while on a recent visit to Tunis.
Unity in the EU on this principle
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior European diplomat confirmed that the EU hopes for resembling 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 told AFP, adding that there is "unity in the EU on this principle."
Moreover, the prime ministers of Egypt, Ethiopia, Algeria, Jordan, Malta, Lebanon, and Niger were there, in addition to ministers from Greece, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Kuwait. Representatives from France and Spain were absent.
A researcher at the Migration Policy Centre of the European University Institute, Federica Infantino, said a new agreement with Tunisia 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," she said, adding that for Meloni's political needs, however, there are "strong symbolic stakes."
'It is a crime scene'
Human rights organizations and charities that assist migrants who undertake the perilous Mediterranean passage are angered by the agreement.
The Human Rights Watch called it "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 a couple of days ago.
"The Mediterranean is not only a graveyard. It is a crime scene," tweeted German NGO Sea-Watch.
According to independent researcher Yves Pascouau, efforts to increase trade and financial investments in green energy, as well as discussion between Europe and the countries from which migrants are coming, are all constructive.
However, Pascouau pointed out that the issue will only be addressed from a security standpoint as long as migration policy is governed by European interior ministers.
In the first half of 2023, more than 100,000 migrants from the coasts of North Africa, Turkey, and Lebanon arrived in Europe by sea, with the majority going to Italy. Last year, there were little over 189,000 of these arrivals.