The European Union and Tunisia have signed a memorandum of understanding for a “strategic and comprehensive partnership” aimed at combatting irregular migration and boosting economic ties between the bloc and the North African country, which lies on a major route for migrants and refugees traveling to Europe.
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni held renewed talks with Tunisian President Kais Saied on Sunday as the number of migrants and refugees departing from Tunisia and trying to reach Europe has significantly increased in recent months.
Speaking at the Tunisian presidential palace, Von der Leyen hailed the accord as an investment in “shared prosperity and stability”.
“Tunisia and the European Union are bound by our shared history and geography, and we share strategic interests,” she said.
Saied said there is the utmost need for a collective agreement on what he called “inhuman migration”, for which he blamed criminal networks.
“This memorandum should be coupled at the earliest time by a set of binding agreements emanating from its principles,” he said.
Rutte said the agreement would help combat human traffickers.
“It contains agreements on disrupting the business model of people smugglers and human traffickers, strengthening border control, and improving registration and return. All essential measures for bolstering efforts to stop irregular migration,” Rutte said on Twitter.
Meloni welcomed “a new and important step to deal with the migration crisis”, and invited Tunisia’s Saied to an international conference on migration on July 23.
Last month, the three leaders visited Tunisia, and the European Commission said at the time that it was considering supporting Tunisia with an aid package of up to 900 million euros ($1,010m) as the country is roiled by economic woes and rising numbers of migrants and refugees traveling through it as they seek to reach Europe.
Specific aid that von der Leyen announced on Sunday included a 10-million euro ($11 million) program to boost exchanges of students and 65 million euros ($73 million) in EU funding to modernize Tunisian schools.
On migration, Von der Leyen said: “We need effective cooperation more than ever.”
The EU will work with Tunisia on an anti-smuggling partnership, will increase coordination in search and rescue operations and both sides also agreed to cooperate on border management, she said. Von der Leyen pledged 100 million euros ($112 million) for those efforts – a figure she had already announced on the leaders’ previous visit.
As of Friday, the Italian interior ministry counted more than 75,000 migrants who had arrived by boat on the Italian coast since the beginning of the year compared to about 31,900 in the same period last year.
‘Trying to police migration’
Yasmine Akrimi, a researcher at the Brussels International Center, said that the agreement was an attempt at “reshaping African mobility”.
“This is a new pathway that Europe is trying to implement in its relationship with Africa – specifically North Africa, which is the closest neighbor – and trying to police African migration and reshaping social dynamics in Tunisia and North Africa more largely,” she told Al Jazeera, speaking from Tunis.
The EU has been trying to achieve this deal for decades, Akrimi said, with the idea of turning North African countries into a “disembark platform” for refugees and migrants.
“Italy wants to consider Tunisia as what they call a safe third country – meaning that everyone who passes through Tunisia can eventually be relocated back to Tunisia,” she said.
Italy is a common destination for refugees and migrants who have fled from parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
The port of Sfax -Tunisia’s second-largest city – is a departure point for many sub-Saharan migrants from impoverished and violence-torn countries who are seeking a better life in Europe by making a perilous Mediterranean crossing, often in makeshift boats.
In March, 29 asylum seekers died attempting the journey.
On July 3, hundreds of migrants fled or were forced out of Sfax after racial tensions flared following the killing of a Tunisian man in an altercation between locals and migrants.
On Sunday, Libyan border guards rescued dozens of migrants they say had been left in the desert by Tunisian authorities without water, food, or shelter, the AFP news agency reported.
The Tunisian Red Crescent has said it provided shelter to more than 600 migrants who had been taken after July 3 to the militarized zone and border town of Ras Jedir north of Al-Assah on the Mediterranean coast.
Amine Snoussi, an independent journalist in Tunis, said anti-migrant sentiment has been building in the past few weeks within Tunisia, a country that does not have a legal framework to welcome migrants.
“The anti-migration and racist sentiment that has been growing has led to people being evicted from their homes, and being fired from their jobs,” he told Al Jazeera. “So it’s difficult to imagine a future for them in Tunisia if things stay this way.”