Italy PM Meloni visits Tunisia for migration talks

Italy PM Meloni visits Tunisia for migration talks

TUNIS (AFP) : Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni met with officials in Tunis Wednesday to discuss what she called a “new approach” to irregular migration and economic cooperation with Tunisia.

The hard-right leader’s visit, the fourth in less than a year to the north African country, came as her government pledged to curb irregular migrant arrivals in Italy.

Meloni met with President Kais Saied, who said after the meeting Tunisia must not become “a country of transit or settlement” for migrants from other African countries, according to a statement from his office.

In a video address released after her discussions with Saied, Meloni also said “Tunisia cannot be a country of arrival for migrants” from the rest of Africa.

She vowed to “involve international organizations to work on repatriations” of migrants while insisting on more European investment in African nations.

Ahead of the visit, an Italian official had told AFP that “cooperation on migration remains a central aspect of the relationship between Italy and Tunisia.”

“It remains essential that Tunisian authorities continue their action to combat human trafficking and contain illegal departures,” the official added.

Meloni’s latest visit to Tunisia came as part of her so-called Mattei Plan, a program aiming to posit Italy as a key bridge between Africa and Europe.

She said the fight against irregular migration required development for African countries and investments.

“Italy will continue to try to advance this new approach which it is promoting at a European level,” she said.

But critics say the plan would funnel energy north while exchanging investment in the south for deals aimed at curbing migration.

Three agreements were signed Wednesday: a 50-million-euro ($53-million) aid for energy projects, credit for small- and medium-sized businesses, and a university cooperation agreement.

Meloni also said Italy would encourage regular migration by granting 12,000 residence permits to Tunisians trained in specific fields.

Tunisia is a major transit point for thousands of sub-Saharan migrants hoping to reach Europe every year, with Italy as a frontline for their arrivals.

Almost 70,000 migrants were intercepted trying to cross the Mediterranean from Tunisia to Italy last year, according to Tunisian authorities.

Meloni visited Tunisia three times over the summer of 2023, twice with the European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen.

The visits resulted in the European Union’s signing of an agreement in July to provide financial aid to debt-ridden Tunisia in return for its commitment to curb migrant departures.

The agreement provided 105 million euros to curb irregular migration — which the EU has started paying — added to 150 million euros in budgetary support.

European Parliament lawmakers criticized the agreement, citing a deterioration of human rights and freedoms in the north African country.

They also criticized Saied’s increasing authoritarian rule after his sweeping power grab in 2021.

Last month, the EU signed a similar deal with Egypt worth 7.4 billion euros on energy and migration.