by Ambra Visentin

An international summit “to understand how to help the countries that migrants leave, and how to stop the trafficking and the traffickers”. These were the declared aims of the International Conference on Development and Migration held yesterday in Rome at the Farnesina, the headquarters of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation. It was an initiative promoted by the Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni. The conference was attended by the leaders of almost all the Countries of the southern shore of the enlarged Mediterranean, the Middle East and the Gulf, the first EU member States and some partners from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa, the heads of the European institutions, the international financial institutions and the heads of major organisations such as the UNHCR and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). Contrary to some rumours, the leaders of Greece, Spain and France did not attend the summit. Giorgia Meloni thus officially launched ‘The Rome Process’, an initiative of equal partnership with nations that “have not worked together before, but now realise that interests are converging and we must work together”. The term ‘process’ was chosen as a synonym for “a broad and multiannual path”. As for relations with African countries, “the approach shouldn’t be predatory or paternalistic,” stressed the Prime Minister. “This is the first time that Mediterranean countries have come together on these issues,” she concluded, pleased to play a role very reminiscent of that played by former Chancellor Angela Merkel when she signed the agreement on the management of Syrian refugees with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2015.

The migration crisis and the Italian government’s strategy

The aim of the conference in Rome was to extend to other States the agreements reached with Tunisia on 16 July, based on economic and financial aid to the North African country to prevent it from letting migrants in transit leave (see details below). More than 85,000 people have arrived in Italy through this route this year, compared to 34,000 for the whole of 2022. To combat illegal immigration, the Italian Government intends to pursue a strategy that aims to tackle the ‘root causes’ of migration by stimulating economic development through partnerships in six sectors: agriculture, energy, infrastructure, education and training, health and water sanitation.

The denunciation of the NGOs: ‘Agreements of shame’

Not far from the Farnesina, at the Spin Time Labs cultural centre, the African Counter Summit was held, organised by the NGOs Refugees in Libya and Mediterranea Saving Humans, to denounce the hypocrisy of European states that sign agreements – defined by Mediterranea as “agreements of shame” – with autocratic countries where human rights violations are commonplace. Mediterranea explains: “This is the perfect example of how the European Union conceives of its relations with African countries: economic, political and military support for authoritarian governments that systematically violate human rights, in exchange for measures to externalise borders, creating more and more obstacles for people on the move, and free access to natural resources to be exploited in a context of neo-colonial relations”.

For days now, the crude images of hundreds of sub-Saharan Africans expelled from Tunisia in what Saied calls “the fight against ethnic substitution” have been making the rounds around the world, particularly in the city of Sfax. This is Tunisia’s second largest city and the main departure point for migrants to Italy, where tensions between locals and foreigners have been rising over the past week. Migrants are also being deported across the borders into Libya and Algeria without water or food. One image in particular has struck public opinion: that taken by a Libyan army officer, which appears to show the two bodies of a mother and daughter (aged 12) abandoned in the desert, burnt by the heat.

The limits of the Memorandum of Understanding with Tunisia

A week ago, the Memorandum of Understanding between the European Union and Tunisia was signed in Carthage, during a meeting between Tunisian President Saied, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The total value of the agreement is €1.5 billion. At the moment, the outline of the memorandum is that Brussels will provide €150 million to support of the Tunisian budget and €105 million for border control. Five pillars of the agreement have been agreed: the first is people-to-people contacts, such as Erasmus+ for Tunisian students; the second is economic development; the third is trade; the fourth is clean energy; and the fifth is migration.

There are many real limits to this agreement. From the words of Kais Saied and the representatives of Libya, the Prime Minister of the Government of National Unity, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, and the President of the National Council, Mohamed Al Menfi, it was clear that the transit countries “do not intend to become the final destination of migration and expect cooperative processes in which dialogue is conducted on an equal footing, with a transparent and fair attitude”. There is therefore no question of turning Tunisia into a notorious third country where not only Tunisians but also other migrants who set sail from its shores are sent back. In fact, Saied is only agreeing to the repatriation of his fellow citizens. A clause that already exists in the bilateral agreements in force between Rome and Tunis and that is even less relevant today, given that this year only 5,000 of the more than 40,000 migrants who have landed and left Tunisia are Tunisians. With regard to blocking departures,Tunisia will receive 17 boats and 8 vessels to follow the boats, but the expansion of the Tunisian fleet does not imply an obligation to operate beyond its territorial waters, as Tunisia does not have an officially recognised SAR (Search and Rescue) zone that would require it to cooperate with other central Mediterranean coastal states in rescue operations.

The unfulfilled hopes of Tunisia’s Arab Spring

Dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was overthrown without bloodshed in 2011, after which the country adopted a democratic constitution and elected a new parliament and president in free elections. Since then, many European politicians have taken this as proof that democracy and Islam can go hand in hand. There were many promises of economic support from the European Union back in 2015. However, the support turned out to be less than what was needed. The effects of the coronavirus pandemic and Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine have further devastated the country, which receives most of its grain supplies from Ukraine. Since 2020, thousands of people have regularly taken to the streets to demonstrate against the poor economic situation and corruption. This led to a pause in the democratisation process at the end of July 2021: President Kais Saied, who was only elected in October 2019, dissolved parliament and dismissed the prime minister. At the end of July 2022, he introduced a new constitution in a referendum that weakened the separation of powers and strengthened his own position.

Why deal with undemocratic governments

According to Meloni, the only way to combat human trafficking and limit migration in the long term is to establish “equal partnerships” with African countries. In this context, there is talk in Rome of a “Mattei Plan”. Named after the founder of the state-owned energy company Eni, Enrico Mattei (1906-1962), the plan, like the Marshall Plan in Europe after the Second World War, aims to promote the economic and social development of African countries. The interests of such cooperation, which ignores the authoritarian nature of the regimes with which it works, also lie in Europe’s new energy needs. Indeed, Tunisia has an abundance of natural resources – wind and sun. Resources that Europe desperately needs now that the invasion of Ukraine has ended its dependence on Russian fossil fuels and it must now invest in clean energy. “We will produce clean energy in Europe” – said von der Leyen – but we will also have to import clean energy from abroad. The production of clean electricity in the EU costs at best 10 cents per kilowatt hour. In Tunisia it could cost as little as two cents.

The risk remains that economic resources will flow to authoritarian countries that have no interest in protecting the lives of migrants. Instead, as in Libya, we may see the rise of migrant detention centres, mini Auschwitzes where people are tortured and killed.

To learn more, read our Tunisia conflict factsheet

Cover image: Ursula von der Leyen and Giorgia Meloni ©Alexandros Michailidis on Shutterstock