Italy urges EU to help Tunisia to stem irregular migration

By Angelo Amante

ROME (Reuters) – It is essential for the European Union to help Tunisia stop migrant boat departures, Italy’s interior minister said on Tuesday, calling on the bloc to enact a deal signed with Tunis in July.

Sea migrant arrivals to Italy have almost doubled in 2023 compared to the same period last year, with around 140,000 people coming ashore so far. Some 91% came from Tunisia, with the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa bearing the brunt of landings.

“The aim is, first and foremost, to stop departures by taking action through a strong international and European initiative,” Interior Minister Matteo Piantedosi told the lower house of Italy’s parliament.

In July the European Union and Tunisia signed off on a strategic partnership that included combating human traffickers and tightening borders, in return for consistent financial aid to the north African state’s battered economy.

However, this month Tunisian President Kais Saied rejected an EU tranche of aid worth 127 million euros ($134 million), saying it conflicted with the partnership, in a move seen as possibly undermining the deal.

“I believe that it is in the interest of all parties to swiftly implement the contents of the deal between the EU and Tunisia,” Piantedosi told parliament.

In an effort to deter sea immigration, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s right-wing government has passed a series of measures, including steps to speed up repatriations of failed asylum seekers and stiffer jail terms for human smugglers.

The government also approved a crackdown on sea rescue charity boats, which Piantedosi accused of acting as a catalyst for departures by signaling to migrants that someone will pick them up at sea.

Charity organisations have always rejected these “pull factor” allegations, pointing out that sea arrivals to Italy have soared this year despite their operations having been curtailed.

Piantedosi also welcomed this month’s European Union deal on how to handle irregular immigration, and said Italy supported a new EU naval mission in the Mediterranean, as long as it does not leads to the “disembarkation of immigrants always and only in Italy.” ($1 = 0.9481 euros)

(Reporting by Angelo Amante, editing by Alvise Armellini and Keith Weir)