30th Sep 2023

EU leadership returns to Tunisia for second time in a month

  • Mark Rutte (l), Ursula von der Leyen, Kais Saied, Giorgia Meloni in Tunisia last month (Photo: EC - Audiovisual Service)
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European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is returning to Tunis along with the prime ministers of Italy and the Netherlands, Giorgia Meloni and Mark Rutte.

The three are meeting on Sunday (16 July) with Tunisia's president Kais Saied, an autocrat leader that has dismantled democracy and issued racist rants against sub-Saharan migrants.

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A spokesperson from the European Commission on Friday could not confirm if von der Leyen would raise the issue of human rights of abused migrants in Tunisia.

Instead, they said that such issues are dealt "with in other fora".

Their return to Tunis, following a previous trip just last month, comes on the heels of intense violence against migrants leading some to risk the perilous sea journeys towards Italy.

The June meeting with Saied ahead of an EU summit in Brussels came with a preliminary agreement to shore up Tunisia with €1bn in EU funds.

Although the proposed money is part of a wider five pillar programme spanning issues like energy and jobs, it is largely seen as an attempt by the EU to stop migrant boat embarkations from Tunisian shores.

Some €105m of EU funds was set aside this year to bolster Tunisian sea and borders and to send unwanted migrants back to their home countries.

But Saied, earlier this month, said that his country would not "agree to be the guardian of any borders other than its own".

The €1bn proposal, currently regarded as a memorandum of understanding, has yet to be formally signed.

Dana Spinant, European Commission spokesperson, described the memorandum of understanding as a "broad partnership document" that will not require member state ratification.

The crackdown on sub-Saharan Africans has only intensified, with Tunisian authorities collectively expelling hundreds of people, including children, at remote militarised zones along its border with Libya.

Others are reportedly bussed from the port city of Sfax to the desert frontier with Algeria.

Economic strife in the country is also affecting Tunisians, which now count among the nationals taking boats to reach Italy.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), over 2,000 Tunisians left on a boat towards Italy in the first three months of this year.

"We should not be surprised if people continue to leave Tunisia by boat to seek effective protection elsewhere," said Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's special envoy for the Mediterranean, in a tweet.

Rutte, whose Dutch government coalition collapsed earlier this week, is staying on as caretaker prime minister until elections in November.

Tensions and a murder at Tunisia's departure port for Lampedusa

Sfax, Tunisia's second-largest city, has become a hub for sub-Saharan migrants because it is the closest departure point for Europe, just 190km from the Italian island of Lampedusa. That's created tension with locals, who often view them as adversaries.

Tunisia abusing African migrants, says leading NGO

Tunisian security forces have been committing serious abuses against black African migrants, says leading NGO Human Rights Watch. The findings comes against the backdrop of a EU-Tunisia deal to stem migration flows.


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