A handout picture provided by the Tunisian Presidency Press Service, shows Tunisian President Kais Saied (R) and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni (L), during a meeting in Tunis, on June 6, 2023. AFP
Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic president is baulking at conditions for $1.9 billion in stalled International Monetary Fund support, which includes cuts to subsidies on flour and fuel, cuts to the large public administration sector, and the privatization of loss-making public companies.
President Kais Saied warns such moves would unleash social unrest, and bristles at what he calls Western diktats. But Tunisia’s economy is teetering toward collapse. The population is already restive and disillusioned with both Saied’s leadership and the country’s decade-long experiment with democracy.
That has pushed more and more Tunisians to risk dangerous boat journeys across the Mediterranean to seek a better life in Europe. Tunisia is also a major transit point for others seeking to migrate: sub-Saharan Africans make up the majority of those who leave from Tunisia’s shores, including some who fled racist abuse stoked by the Tunisian president earlier this year.
“Tunisia is a priority, because destabilization in Tunisia would have serious repercussions on the stability of all Northern Africa, and those repercussions inevitably arrive here," Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, whose country is the destination for most Europe-bound migrants leaving from Tunisia, said Thursday.
Stemming migration is a top priority for the far-right Meloni, who is making her second trip to Tunisia in a week. She visited Tuesday and is coming back Sunday with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for meetings with Saied.
The European leaders are bringing a packet of initiatives to improve security in Tunisia, easing the way for IMF help, Meloni said.
The European Commission said talks would centre on making progress on an EU-Tunisia agreement focused on the economy, energy and migration.
Tunisia's budget deficit was aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and fallout from Russia’s war in Ukraine, and the IMF aid was stalled amid political tensions.
After meeting Meloni on Tuesday, Saied said Tunisia is struggling to cope with migrants from other African countries who settle in Tunisia or transit through and called for international aid to fight migrant smuggling networks that “consider these immigrants as merchandise thrown into the sea or the sands of the desert.”
“Now all roads lead not only to Rome, but also to Tunisia,” Saied said, according to a statement from his office.
While European officials are bringing proposals about security, Saied said the solution is not only about security but also “tools to eliminate misery, poverty and deprivation.″
The Italian and Tunisian leaders discussed holding an international summit on migration and development with countries around the Mediterranean and from the Persian Gulf.
A migrants' advocacy group, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, held a demonstration against Meloni's visit Tuesday and plans another for Sunday. The group and some 30 other organizations issued a joint statement denouncing “the Italian government’s repressive policy towards illegal migrants and the forced repatriation of the latter to their countries of origin."
For years, Tunisia has been one of the few countries with repatriation agreements with Italy, and so Tunisians who enter illegally and have no grounds for asylum bids are sent back.
The Tunis visit comes days after EU countries sealed agreement on a plan to share out responsibility for migrants entering Europe without authorization, the root of one of the bloc’s longest-running political crises. The plan is still in the early stages and may meet resistance at the European Parliament.