By Tarek Amara
TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia and the European Union signed on Sunday a “strategic partnership” deal that includes combatting human traffickers and tightening borders during a sharp increase in boats leaving the North African nation for Europe.
The deal follows weeks of talks and Europe’s pledge of major aid to Tunisia amounting to 1 billion euros ($1.12 billion) to help its battered economy, rescue state finances and deal with a migration crisis. Most funds are contingent on economic reforms.
“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,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Twitter.
The European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyens said the bloc will allocate 100 million euros to Tunisia to help it combat illegal migration. The deal promotes macro-economic stability, trade and investment, green energy transition and legal immigration.
Thousands of undocumented African migrants have flocked to the city of Sfax in recent months seeking to head for Europe in traffickers’ boats, amounting to an unprecedented migration crisis for Tunisia.
“We are very pleased, it is a further important step towards the creation of a true partnership between Tunisia and the EU, which can address in an integrated fashion the migration crisis,” Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Miloni said.
Meloni, whose country has suffered a sharp increase in immigration boats, said that there would be an international conference on migration in Rome next Sunday with several heads of state, including Tunisian President Kais Saied.
Some 75,065 boat migrants had reached Italy by July 14 against 31,920 in the same period last year, official data showed. More than half left from Tunisia, overtaking Libya, which has traditionally been the main launchpad.
Saied said this month his country would not become a border guard for Europe.