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Tunisia brush-off augurs badly for EU push for African migration deals

migrants in lampedusa
FILE PHOTO: Migrants gather at the hotspot, a reception centre for migrants, ahead of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni's visit to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, Italy, September 17, 2023. REUTERS/Yara Nardi/File photo

By Gabriela Baczynska and Tarek Amara

When Tunisian President Kais Saied this month rejected €60 million ($63 million) in EU aid, the bloc got a taste of the risks and challenges it will face as it seeks new pacts with African states to reduce irregular Mediterranean immigration.

Spurred by Italy and Spain, the European Union has embraced the idea of sealing what it terms strategic cooperation deals in North Africa as the best tool to curb unauthorised arrivals.

But security risks, high costs, a lack of trust, and African countries’ incapacity or unwillingness to tighten their borders or asylum systems highlight the shortcomings of a policy that rights groups have criticised as ignoring humanitarian considerations.

“Mostly, these countries are not ready to handle it,” said an EU official involved in the 27-nation bloc’s foreign policy. “They are also very sensitive to what they see as matters of sovereignty.”

Another EU official engaged in related international negotiations pointed to more risks: making the EU dependent on leaders criticised for abuse of human rights and democratic standards, and seen as bargaining hard for money.

A deal with Turkey to curb immigration from there has cost the EU more than €9 billion since 2016.

It has significantly cut arrivals in Greece and elsewhere in the bloc, which was caught unprepared in 2015 when more than one million people – mostly fleeing war in Syria – reached its shores.

It has also contributed to a swelling of Turkey’s refugee population, raising a red flag for other would be beneficiaries unwilling to contain people on their soil to help much-richer Europe.

TUNISIA AND EGYPT

Tunisia, its IMF bailout stalled, was offered €1 billion under a deal rushed through by the EU in July, providing various categories of economic assistance in exchange for curbing migration, mostly linked to economic reforms.

Saied, balking at the terms, sent back part of the first tranche of aid.

“Tunisia refuses to be a (migration) hotspot or a country of destination,” migration researcher Fatma Raach said.

The deal has also been criticised for insufficient transparency, with Raach pointing out it made no provision for oversight of reception conditions in a country that has no asylum laws, creating a safety risk for those on the move.

The EU, home to 450 million people, has recorded 250,000 irregular arrivals this year, up from 160,000 for all of 2022, an increase Italy and Germany have voiced concern about.

While it has welcomed several million refugees from Russia’s war in neighbouring Ukraine, the bloc wants to restrict unauthorised immigration from the Middle East and Africa.

Tunisia says it has cracked down on people smugglers, prevented nearly 10,000 sea departures in the month to October 15, and barred some 12,500 people from arriving by land.

“Tunisia is making every effort to stop the migrant flow,” a senior Tunisian official told Reuters. “We want an agreement that addresses the economic causes, and investments,” he added, echoing comments by Raach.

In a positive signal, Saied welcomed Italy agreeing to take some 4,000 workers from his country.

Germany is also dangling the prospect of facilitating legal immigration and Chancellor Olaf Scholz recently visited Egypt, where the Commission is trying to negotiate a “Strategic and Mutually Beneficial Partnership”.

While EU officials acknowledge the cash-for-migration-curbs model would neither be easy nor the ultimate solution to complex challenges, the bloc’s leaders are set to confirm that course when they meet for a summit in Brussels on Thursday.

“There will certainly be a push to do more,” said one of the EU officials.

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