European leaders hope to restore stability in Tunisia, a major source of migration

TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Tunisia hosts the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and the European Union on Sunday for talks aimed at paving the way for an international bailout and restoring stability to a country which has become a major source of migration to Europe.

Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic president is reluctant to agree to the terms of a frozen $1.9 billion International Monetary Fund backstop, which includes cuts to flour and fuel subsidies, cuts to the large public administration sector and the privatization of loss-making public enterprises.

President Kais Saied warns such moves would trigger social unrest and bristles at what he calls Western dictates. But the Tunisian economy is on the verge of collapse. People are already restless and disillusioned both with Saied’s leadership and the country’s decade-long democratic experiment.

This has pushed more and more Tunisians to risk dangerous boat trips across the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. Tunisia is also a major transit point for those seeking to migrate: Sub-Saharan Africans make up the majority of those leaving Tunisia’s shores, including some who fled racist abuse stoked by Tunisia’s president earlier this year.

“Tunisia is a priority, because a destabilization in Tunisia would have serious repercussions on the stability of all of North Africa, and these repercussions inevitably arrive here,” said Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, whose country is the destination. of most migrants to Europe departing from Tunisia. said Thursday.

Stemming migration is a top priority for far-right Meloni, who is making his second trip to Tunisia in a week. She visited on Tuesday and returns on Sunday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for talks with Saied.

European leaders are bringing a package of initiatives to improve security in Tunisia, paving the way for IMF assistance, Meloni said.

The European Commission said talks would focus on advancing an EU-Tunisia deal focusing on the economy, energy and migration.

Tunisia’s budget deficit has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, and IMF aid has been stalled amid political tensions. Saied dissolved parliament and had the constitution rewritten to give more power to the presidency, and oversaw a crackdown on opposition figures and independent media.

After meeting Meloni on Tuesday, Saied said Tunisia was struggling to deal with migrants from other African countries settling in or transiting through Tunisia, and called for international help to tackle smuggling networks. of migrants who “consider these immigrants as goods thrown overboard or overboard”. desert sands. »

“Now all roads lead not only to Rome, but also to Tunisia,” Saied said, according to a statement from his office.

As European officials make proposals on security, Saied said the solution is not only about security but also “tools to eliminate misery, poverty and deprivation”.

Italian and Tunisian leaders discussed holding an international summit on migration and development with countries around the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf.

A migrant advocacy group, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, staged a protest against Meloni’s visit on Tuesday and plans another on Sunday. The group and around 30 other organizations issued a joint statement denouncing “the repressive policy of the Italian government towards illegal migrants and the forced repatriation of the latter to their country of origin”.

For years, Tunisia was one of the few countries to have repatriation agreements with Italy, and therefore Tunisians who enter illegally and have no grounds for seeking asylum are sent back.

The visit to Tunis comes days after EU countries reached agreement on a plan to share responsibility for migrants entering Europe without permission, sparking one of the oldest political crises in the world. block. The plan is still in its infancy and could meet resistance in the European Parliament.


Angela Charlton reported from Paris. Frances D’Emilio in Rome, Colleen Barry in Milan and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.


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