Tunisia: European leaders visiting Tunisia on Sunday held out the promise of more than 1 billion euros in financial aid to rescue its teetering economy and better police its borders, to restore stability to the North African country — and to stem migration from its shores to Europe.
A Tunisian rights group denounced the EU proposal as ’’blackmail,” saying it would worsen abuses of migrants and was aimed at closing Europe’s doors to those in need.
Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic president hosted the leaders of Italy, the Netherlands and the European Commission for talks aimed at smoothing the way for an international financial bailout of the troubled country.
On the eve of the talks, Tunisian President Kais Saied made an unannounced visit to a migrant camp in the coastal city of Sfax, a central jumping-off point for boat journeys crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. Saied spoke with families living in the camp and pleaded for international aid for Africans who converge on Tunisia as a transit point to reach Europe.
His caring words — and sympathetic images of the president with migrant babies posted on his Facebook page — contrasted sharply with Saied’s stance earlier this year. He stoked racist abuse of Black African migrants in Tunisia with a speech railing against a perceived plot to erase his country’s Arab identity.
The president and Tunisian Prime Minister Najla Bouden met Sunday with Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
After the talks, von der Leyen announced a five-point program to support Tunisia, including up to 1.05 billion euros ($1.1 billion) in aid for Tunisia’s indebted budget. The plan will be discussed with all 27 EU countries at their next summit in late June, she said.
In addition, the EU is discussing investment in high-speed broadband and other digital infrastructure for Tunisia and 300 million euros in hydrogen and other renewable energy projects, von der Leyen said.
The plan also includes 100 million euros for Tunisian border operations, including search-and-rescue and anti-smuggling operations, she said. Amid criticism from migrant advocacy groups about forced repatriations and abuses of migrants in Tunisia, von der Leyen and Rutte insisted the program would respect human rights.
The aim is to “kill that cynical business model of the boat smuggler. Migration is at this moment one of the most important issues facing all of us,” Rutte said.
The Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), which advocates for migrants, expressed concern about the European aid offer.
“Europe has not seen Tunisia as a country in need of cooperation based on genuine democracy guaranteeing rights and freedoms, but merely as an advanced border point requiring more equipment to contain immigration, with the aim that no one should be able to reach Europe,” it said in a statement Monday.
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