The European Union and Tunisia on Sunday signed a memorandum of understanding for a “strategic and comprehensive partnership” on irregular migration, economic development and renewable energy.
The deal, which includes financial assistance, came as Tunisia has been under fire over its treatment of migrants since February, after President Kais Saied accused “hordes” of migrants from sub-Saharan African countries of a “plot” to change the country’s demographic makeup.
The cash-strapped North African country, a key route for migrants trying to make their way to Europe, has since seen a rise in racially motivated attacks.
Tensions came to a head after a Tunisian man was killed on July 3 in an clash between locals and migrants in the city of Sfax.
Speaking at the Tunisian presidential palace, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday’s accord aims to “invest in shared prosperity”.
“We need an effective cooperation, more than ever” on migration, von der Leyen said, announcing greater cooperation against “networks of smugglers and traffickers” and in search and rescue operations, AFP reported.
She was accompanied by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and her Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte, who were all in Tunisia in June for talks on ways to curb irregular migration.
Tunisia lies about 130 kilometres (80 miles) from the Italian island of Lampedusa, and has long been a departure point for migrants risking perilous sea journeys on makeshift boats in hopes of reaching Europe.
The International Organization for Migration has said 2,406 migrants died or disappeared in the Mediterranean in 2022, while at least 1,166 deaths or disappearance were recorded in the first half of 2023.
Meloni on Sunday welcomed “a new and important step to deal with the migration crisis”, and invited Saied to an international conference on migration on July 23.
Rutte said both the European Union and “the Tunisian people” stand to benefit from the agreement, noting that the EU is Tunisia’s biggest trading partner.
The deal also covers financial aid to schools in Tunisia and renewable energy initiatives.
Saied meanwhile called for a “collective agreement on inhuman immigration and (forced) displacements of people by criminal networks”.
He insisted that Tunisia “gave the migrants everything it can offer with unlimited generosity”.
Von der Leyen said the EU remains “ready to support Tunisia” and provide the funds “as soon as the necessary conditions are met”.