Tunisia and the European Union (EU) have recently concluded negotiations and signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a “strategic and comprehensive partnership.” The agreement aims to tackle the issue of irregular migration and enhance economic ties between the EU and Tunisia, a North African country situated on a major migratory route to Europe.
On Sunday, Tunisian President Kais Saied held renewed talks with European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni. This meeting became necessary due to the significant increase in the number of migrants and refugees departing from Tunisia and attempting to reach Europe in recent months.
The signing ceremony took place at the Tunisian presidential palace, where Von der Leyen hailed the accord as an investment in “shared prosperity and stability.” She emphasized the historical and geographical connections between Tunisia and the EU and the strategic interests they both share.
President Saied expressed the urgent need for a collective agreement to address what he referred to as “inhuman migration,” which he attributed to criminal networks. He called for binding agreements based on the principles outlined in the memorandum.
Prime Minister Rutte highlighted that the agreement would play a crucial role in combatting human trafficking. Through this partnership, measures will be implemented to disrupt the business model of people smugglers, strengthen border control, improve registration procedures, and facilitate returns. These essential steps aim to curb irregular migration.
Prime Minister Meloni welcomed the agreement as a significant milestone in addressing the migration crisis. She extended an invitation to President Saied to attend an international conference on migration scheduled for July 23.
Last month, the three European leaders visited Tunisia, and during that time, the European Commission announced its consideration of providing Tunisia with up to 900 million euros ($1,010 million) in aid. The country is grappling with economic challenges while simultaneously witnessing a rising influx of migrants and refugees transiting through its territory en route to Europe.
As part of the aid package, President Von der Leyen announced specific measures, including a 10-million euro ($11 million) program to promote student exchanges and 65 million euros ($73 million) in EU funding for the modernization of Tunisian schools.
Regarding migration cooperation, President Von der Leyen emphasized the necessity of effective collaboration. The EU pledged to work with Tunisia on an anti-smuggling partnership, enhance coordination in search and rescue operations, and cooperate on border management. To support these efforts, President Von der Leyen pledged 100 million euros ($112 million) in funding, a commitment previously announced during the leaders’ earlier visit to Tunisia.
As of Friday, the Italian interior ministry reported that over 75,000 migrants had arrived by boat on the Italian coast since the beginning of the year, compared to approximately 31,900 during the same period last year.
Yasmine Akrimi, a researcher at the Brussels International Center, described the agreement as an attempt to reshape African mobility. She explained that Europe seeks to establish North African countries, particularly Tunisia, as “disembark platforms” for refugees and migrants. Italy aims to classify Tunisia as a “safe third country,” meaning that individuals passing through Tunisia could eventually be returned to Tunisia.
Italy commonly serves as a destination for refugees and migrants fleeing from various parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Many sub-Saharan migrants, hailing from impoverished and violence-stricken countries, depart from Tunisia’s second-largest city, Sfax, in makeshift boats, embarking on a perilous Mediterranean crossing.
Unfortunately, these journeys often result in tragic outcomes. In March, 29 asylum seekers lost their lives while attempting the dangerous voyage. Furthermore, racial tensions erupted in Sfax on July 3, leading to the eviction or forced departure of hundreds of migrants following the killing of a Tunisian man during an altercation between locals and migrants.
On Sunday, Libyan border guards reportedly rescued numerous migrants abandoned by Tunisian authorities in the desert without access to water, food, or shelter. The Tunisian Red Crescent has provided assistance and 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 the recent surge in anti-migrant sentiment within Tunisia. He mentioned the absence of a legal framework to accommodate migrants in the country, leading to eviction from homes and job terminations. Snoussi expressed concerns about the future prospects for migrants in Tunisia if the situation remains unchanged.