Italy, EU vow economic support to Tunisia to curb illegal migration

Saied reaffirmed his view that “security solutions alone are not enough to eradicate illegal migration.”
Monday 17/08/2020
Tunisia’s Prime Minister-designate and interior minister Hichem Mechichi (L) greets Italian interior minister Luciana Lamorgese upon her arrival on August 17, 2020 in Tunis.  (AFP)
Tunisia’s Prime Minister-designate and interior minister Hichem Mechichi (L) greets Italian interior minister Luciana Lamorgese upon her arrival on August 17, 2020 in Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS--A high-level joint Italian-EU delegation discussed Monday with Tunisian President Kais Saied the issue of increased illegal migration from Tunisian shores to Italy.

The delegation included Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio and Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese as well as European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson and European Enlargement and Neighbourhood Policy Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi.

According to the Tunisian presidency, the two sides “reiterated their common will” to boost cooperation, “especially in economic and social areas so as to curtail illegal migration and address its deep roots.”

Tunisian President Kais Saied receives Italian-Eu delegation in Carthage, August 17. (Tunisian Presidency)
Tunisian President Kais Saied receives Italian-Eu delegation in Carthage, August 17. (Tunisian Presidency)

The Tunisian president is said to have “stressed the need to adopt a comprehensive and consensus-based approach that aims at fighting poverty and unemployment through development efforts in home countries and encouraging legal migration.”

Saied reaffirmed his view that “security solutions alone are not enough to eradicate illegal migration.”

The Italian foreign minister was quoted as saying his country intends to help Tunisia create more jobs and develop youth programmes. But he pointed out that “migrants arriving illegally will not be be allowed to stay in Italy.”

Besides meeting with Saied, the delegation is scheduled to hold talks with Prime Minister-designate and Interior Minister Hichem Mechichi and acting Foreign Minister Selma Ennaifer.

According to Italian news agency ANSA, “the presence of the two European commissioners is significant, because Italy called on Europe for concrete support in its negotiations with Tunisia.”

Italian statistics show that a total of 21,618 migrants arrived in Italy by sea between August 1, 2019 and July 31, 2020, an increase of 148.7% compared to 8,691 migrants who arrived during the same period between August 1, 2018 and July 31, 2019.

Over 80% of the migrants reaching Italy by sea left from Tunisia and Libya, the data showed.

As pointed out by the Italian interior minister before coming to Tunis, the numbers themselves are not dramatic. “The numbers aren’t very high – they are certainly higher than last year’s but we must put them into context: Tunisia is in a deep economic, social and political crisis,” Lamorgese told reporters before her visit.

Italian, EU and Tunisian delegations during their meeting, August 17, with Tunisian President Kais Saied in Carthage. (Tunisian Presidency)
Italian, EU and Tunisian delegations during their meeting, August 17, with Tunisian President Kais Saied in Carthage. (Tunisian Presidency)

A peak was reached between August 2016 and July 2017, when almost 183,000 migrants reached Italy.

In a clear reflection of the urgency of the talks for Italian and European officials, the delegation is visiting the North African country at a time when Mechichi is still struggling to form a government.

According to experts,  however, the urgency of the talks have to do less with the number of illegal migrants than with the pressures exerted by the Italian far-right on the country’s centre-left government and the desire by Europeans to show solidarity with Italy.

Alarm over this summer’s migration wave is amplified by the fear that illegal migrants, who are accused of defying confinement measures, could also be COVID-19 carriers.

The Italian-EU delegation is expected to offer Tunisians the disbursement of urgent funds to help their cash-strapped economy.  In exchange, Italians and Europeans want Tunisian assurances of active cooperation in stopping the flow of illegal migration and the repatriation of Tunisian nationals who are already in Italy.

Tunisian authorities hope the Italians, with the support of the EU, will boost their development assistance and replicate the terms of the Tunisia-French agreement of 2008 that provided 9,000 work permits for Tunisians in France.

The Tunisian president, who had already met with the Italian minister last month, tried to reassure the Italians about the North African country’s commitment to combating illegal migration as he inspected coast guard centres in two of the main departure points for illegal migrants, Sfax and Mahdia, on the Tunisian coast.

Tunisian government sources told The Arab Weekly that implementation of tighter security measures is hindered by a lack of material means. The country’s coast guard and navy are already stretched thin, they say.

As opposed to Italian leaders’ focus on immediate interdiction measures, Tunisia’s concern is for long-term solutions that address the deep roots of the problem having to do with economy’s inability to generate enough jobs and create hope for poor youth. Figures released Saturday by the National Statistics Institute showed unemployment to have risen to an unprecedented 18%. GNP growth has shrunk by no less than 21.6% in the second quarter of 2020.

Economic slowdown has been endemic since Tunisia’s 2011 uprising that toppled the regime of late longtime ruler Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but has been made worse by the pandemic. Unresolved structural issues include neglect of rural areas and a high drop-out rate from schools of more than 100,000 teens and children.

The Italian minister said prior to her visit that her country intends to help Tunisian authorities deal with the economic aspects of the country’s crisis, in a change of tone that is welcome in Tunis. Senior Italian officials were previously reportedly exerting pressures and making open threats of suspending assistance. Italian authorities are said to be tempted to pressure Tunisia into accepting a stricter security approach, including the seizure of boats before they leave the shores of the country.

“The pressures may be embarrassing for authorities but should not affect the strategic ties between Tunisia and its Italian and European  neighbours,” said a diplomatic source in Tunis before the delegation’s visit.

Italians are also likely to seek the cooperation of authorities in the massive repatriation of migrants, by plane and boat, based on a bilateral agreement that is still in effect.

But NGOs that are active on the issue believe a security-based crackdown will have a limited long term impact on the problem.

Aberrahmane Hedhili, president of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, pointed out that even after their arrest and repatriation, illegal migrants are likely to try their luck again.

“The would-be illegal migrants have no consideration for security measures. They are in total disconnect from the state and lack any confidence in the political class,” he told The Arab Weekly.