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Combating immigration in exchange for financial aid

April 22, 2024 at 8:59 pm

Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) meets with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (L) at the Carthage Palace in Tunis, Tunisia on April 17, 2024 [Tunisan Presidency – Anadolu Agency]

Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni, recently made her fourth visit to Tunisia within about a year, in addition to dozens of other visits by ministers in her government, including the Foreign and Interior Affairs ministers, as well as the Ministers of Higher Education and Employment. The visit lasted a few hours, after which Meloni flew to Brussels to attend an important meeting at the European Commission. There must be a strong relationship between the two visits, as Meloni insisted on holding it hours before this European meeting, and it is likely that she conveyed the Tunisian position specifically on the issue of immigration, especially since the EU has just about amended the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum.

Meloni is a descendant of a populist political heritage, as she is the grand-daughter of Benito Mussolini, who manipulated the emotions of the Italian people and led them to abhorrent fascism. Meloni continued to play on the strings of populism until she won over an Italian public opinion that was resentful and revolted against the policies of its former rulers, especially since it has not forgotten the Covid-19 tragedy, in which Italy was among the European countries most affected by it. Her Brothers of Italy party won the electoral race, and the immigration card was one of the levers that pushed it above the competing parties, in light of the decline of the socialist parties, and even Christian democratic ones. Therefore, the political arena remained almost empty, with only the various degrees of the right wing played.

READ: Italy offers Tunisia $112m in state cash, credit facility

Meloni repeatedly clashed with her European counterparts, especially the French, when she accused them of being the cause of the migration of Africans, reminding them, more than once, that France had robbed the countries of the continent of their resources, impoverished them and supported corrupt regimes loyal to it. The French responded to these statements, reminding Meloni that Italy had also colonised African countries. Her clashes with her European counterparts did not end there; instead, she re-imposed a review of the EU Pact on Migration and Asylum, which was issued a few days ago, calling for more European solidarity with the “front-line” countries (Italy, Malta, Greece and Spain) where thousands of migrants head before later trying to move to other places. Meloni believes that Italy is a preferred destination for immigrants over other destinations and, therefore, it was left alone to bear the brunt of the migrants. Meloni is well aware that, in order to tighten her grip on the immigrants flocking to her country, she needs a partner from outside the European continent, and she predicts with her political intuition and intelligence that Tunisia, for many reasons, is a candidate to be a distinguished partner in what she calls “combating illegal immigration”.  She has many arguments for this, including that Tunisia is ruled by a populist regime that deliberately established a new constitution (2022) that goes far in glorifying the people, and believes that they are pure and unmixed. So, it is easy to think that waves of migration threaten its identity. President Kais Saied’s statements in February 2022 considered the migration of Africans coming from sub-Saharan countries a plot aiming to change the country’s identity, through the settlement of large numbers of Africans. This is in addition to the severe economic crisis that has been hitting the country for many years. All of this is taking place in light of the IMF’s refusal, along with other international donor organisations, to continue helping the country, which constantly refuses to accept the conditions of the IMF. The Tunisian President believes that these conditions are the recommendations of a global financial system that does not respect the country’s sovereignty and wants to drag it towards more dependence.

These statements, in addition to the strict security practices and deportations, were an incentive for Italy to propose a close cooperation project with Tunisia to stop the flow of migrants coming from Tunisia. Statistics prove that Tunisia is almost the most important crossing point used by African migrants. Italy provided logistical assistance to the Tunisian maritime security forces in order to increase their readiness and capabilities to monitor and patrol more than 1,500 kilometres of coastline. It also mediated with the EU to request financial support that Tunisia saw as insufficient, and wanted to put more pressure so that the funds would match the size of the “role” played by Tunisia since 2019, the date of President Saied’s ascension to the presidency. In less than a year, Tunisia has proven extremely effective in respecting its promises to its Italian partner, reducing the number of migrants arriving to Italian shores in an unprecedented manner, deporting thousands of migrants and leading thousands more to its borders under difficult humanitarian situations. To reward these efforts, Italy expressed its willingness to receive approximately 12,000 Tunisian immigrants legally to work in the construction, agricultural and other sectors. An agreement was drawn up in this regard to activate it during the next few months, and the recent visit was an opportunity to examine this issue, as well as aid to finance the education, higher education and employment sectors.

The flow of migrants arriving in Italy has decreased significantly but, contrary to all expectations, it seems that the number of migrants who arrived in Tunisia during the past few months has increased in an unprecedented manner, which means that the country may turn into a trap for migrants, with those entering it finding themselves unable to leave. This would only double the burden of caring for them in terms of residence, employment, observing, etc. Tunisia has expressed its readiness for strong cooperation with Italy in order to combat migration, but it still rejects all temptations put forth by European countries in order to turn it into a base for handling influxes of migrants, similar to what Rwanda did, for example, with Britain, when it received thousands of refugees. Britain recently announced that Tunisia rejected efforts it had made to persuade it to follow Rwanda’s example.

READ: Italy unveils details of ambitious Africa plan

This article appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby on 22 April, 2024. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.