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Italian ministers’ visit to Tunis marks step forward in cooperation on illegal immigration

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Italian ministers’ visit to Tunis marks step forward in cooperation on illegal immigration

On 17 August Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio and Minister of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese, accompanied by two EU Commissioners, met with Tunisian President Kais Saied and members of his government in Tunis to discuss the issue of illegal immigration. The importance of this visit cannot be underestimated, says Kamel Ghribi, Chairman of the GK Investment Company.

As with many EU nations, Italy is facing the enormous task of rebuilding its economy in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. Tunisia is facing the same situation but economic recovery is compounded by the impact of regional instability on its myriad industries. As with Italy, no sector has been hit harder than tourism.

Adding to this difficult situation is the question of uncontrolled illegal immigration. I would like to express my deep gratitude that this question is now finally being addressed in earnest thanks to the industrious behind the scenes work carried out by the Italian and Tunisian diplomatic missions represented in Rome and Tunis. Thanks to their gutta cavat lapidem approach, combined with the deep desire of Italian Foreign Minister Luigi di Maio and Minister of the Interior Luciana Lamorgese to find a long-term solution to an age old difficulty, an official visit of great importance took place on 17 August in Tunis with the Tunisian Government.

Symbolic significance

The importance of this visit cannot be underestimated, not only for the two nations most deeply affected by illegal immigration, but also for the EU who have thrown their full support behind the Italian mission by sending two special envoys – Commissioner Borrell and Commissioner Joansson. The symbolic significance of this choice will not go unheeded.

Tunisia, by virtue of geography, has always been an important strategic partner for the EU through trade and as a ‘privileged partner’; however it is also, like Italy, a migration hub and is often the first port of call for many sub-Saharan immigrants. Tunisia is considered the first transit safe-haven as immigrants attempt to reach European shores.

Immigration is a humanitarian issue, and as the Tunisian President correctly stated, security solutions alone cannot resolve the situation. Therefore, a new approach to resolving the problem is long overdue; this time, however, there is more pressure on the EU to deliver on promises made. A commitment to robust bilateral economic programmes that sustain and support the countries generating migrants and transit nations such as Tunisia is needed if we are to curb the desperate exodus.

Clearly, the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the factors in the surge of migration, but we cannot ignore the pre-existing economic situations combined with high youth unemployment that have aggravated an already difficult situation. Therefore, we are now witnessing a surge in a different type of migrant. As well as the economic and political refugees of the past, we are now seeing the exodus of entire families and highly educated graduates hoping to find a better life in Europe. It has been noted that many of these immigrants are young Tunisians.

Tunisia holds the right solution

Immigration is not a one-nation problem. Italy is struggling to recover from the devastation caused by Covid-19 and has already voiced concerns about the need for speedy intervention that will curb the flow of illegal immigrants. I maintain the view that with the right support Tunisia holds the ideal solution to this problem.

EU member states will need to create an initiative in Tunisia aimed at legally processing immigrants and creating a systematic and controlled arrival and integration programme that can regulate the arrival of immigrants to Europe allowing them safety, protection and a chance to build a new life. Tunisia, as a transit country, will always be an ideal and partner to share the burden of immigration together with nations of origin and those of destination, but only if adequately supported.

Tunisia cannot be abandoned at this delicate time. The EU must endeavour to seek more balanced partnerships, and although this will be a challenge, the balance must be found if we are to stabilise the region as a whole and transcend political divisions. Without regional stability then no structured immigration programmes between any MENA nation and the EU can ever succeed in the face of refugees fleeing unemployment and lack of opportunity on the one hand, and on the other, hunger, persecution, violence and oppression.

Tunisia can be an inspiration for the region because it has made and will continue to make credible strides towards democracy, political, social and economic reform as well as border security. The EU can play a role in the region by supporting Tunisia’s success as a model to follow. We must not forget, however, that Tunisia still has much hard work to do in terms of the institutional reforms necessary to strengthen and consolidate the full transition towards a mature democracy. Furthermore, the EU will also need to consider ways to assist Tunisia domestically and not simply with the issue of immigration.

Illegal immigration affects the entire European Union; therefore, Italy and Tunisia cannot be left alone to deal with the influx of migrants. The fact that the EU has sent representatives to join the Italian Foreign Minister and Minister of the Interior to meet in Tunis is a positive sign that the EU understands the critical importance of finding a common vision that will foster fair, open and egalitarian dialogue.

Towards a long-term solution

We need to find long-term solutions to the problem of illegal immigration and resources must be channelled towards frontline nations such as Italy and Tunisia because as we have found out to our great cost, both economically and in terms of human life – illegal immigration is an irresolvable problem in the short-term.

Migration policies must follow a long-term vision and address the root causes of emigration in the nations of origin, they must identify the best way to support transit countries such as Tunisia and adequately control borders before adopting other measures in countries of destination in this case, EU member states.

The only way this can be achieved is for the EU to dedicate economic resources for the development of Africa and the MENA region, as investment encourages economic development and offers tangible improvements and better living conditions that will prevent people from being obliged to leave their countries of origin.

However, to succeed we will need courage and ambition. We need to generate opportunities and offer investment incentives that strengthen the production base, create jobs in the countries of origin, provide basic healthcare and educational services to the local populations, ensure that the young have the tools to decide their future and thus avoid the temptation to migrate to Europe. The simple and indeed logical truth is that either we offer migrants opportunities in their own countries, or they will come to ours looking for them in Europe.

The responsibility to assist does not fall on governments alone; my personal business approach demonstrates that the private sector and individual entrepreneurs can do much to help create employment and strengthen businesses through strategic investments and financing targeted projects in the nations within which they operate.

Time to revise agendas imposed on Tunisia

There is also no doubt that Tunisia has been at the receiving end of much financial support from the EU; however, I believe that in these delicate Covid-19 times now could be the right time to revise the external economic agendas imposed on Tunisia and re-examine the true nature of the conditions attached to the financial support offered. 

That loans must come with interest rates is non-negotiable; what is negotiable however is whether they should come imposed with austerity measures that will harden socio-economic conditions by burdening future generations. 

In exchange, Tunisia will have to show itself to be a serious and reliable Mediterranean partner capable of maintaining the commitments undertaken to make the borders with Europe safe.

We cannot fail in this mission and the fact that the European Union is accompanying the Italian mission to Tunis underlines an acute awareness of the fact that, paradoxically, most of the immigrants who land on Italian shores have no desire to stay. Italy is quite simply not the coveted destination but rather, it is considered a transit country for immigrants wishing to reach other European states.

The visit of the Italian ministers and their EU colleagues represents a once in a generation opportunity for Euro-Mediterranean relations and I have faith in its deep symbolism.

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