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EU lawmakers clash over Tunisia migration deal, denounce lack of results

Members of the European Parliament clashed over the EU's migration deal with Tunisia
Members of the European Parliament clashed over the EU's migration deal with Tunisia Copyright Mathieu CUGNOT/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
Copyright Mathieu CUGNOT/ European Union 2023 - Source : EP
By Mared Gwyn Jones
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Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) clashed on Tuesday over the EU's controversial migration agreement with Tunisia.

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In a heated debate during a plenary session in Strasbourg, MEPs from across the political spectrum claimed the number of migrants entering Europe from the North African country had increased since the agreement was signed in July.

"The deal has only led to more repression, more deaths, and even more migration," Tineke Strik of the Greens group said.

"Two months after the signing ceremony, we don't see much implementation," Jeroen Lenaers of the centre-right European People's Party (EPP) added. "Arrivals continue to increase, and on the ground in Tunisia we see little development."

The contentious agreement includes €105 million in EU aid to stem irregular migration by clamping down on smuggling operations and strengthening border management. It also includes around €600 million in budgetary support and strategic investments in Tunisia's economy.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP, claimed earlier on Tuesday that an uptick in migration numbers immediately after the signing of the agreement was expected before numbers eventually come down.

EU home affairs chief Ylva Johansson said in July that 45,000 asylum seekers had left Tunisia for Europe this year, a huge increase compared to previous years. Of those, around 5,000 were estimated to be of Tunisian origin, in a sign the country has become an increasingly popular country of transit for migrants and refugees.

Human rights at risk

EU lawmakers blasted the European Commission for failing to recognise mounting evidence of Tunisian authorities’ abusive treatment of sub-Saharan migrants, including illegal pushbacks, racial hatred and human rights violations.

In early August, 27 migrants were found dead in Libyan territory near the Tunisian border, days after Interior Minister Kamel Fekih admitted small groups of migrants were being pushed back into the desert region bordering Libya and Algeria.

"We all remember the image of the dead body of a mother and her daughter in the desert, paid for by European money," Sophie in 't Veld of Renew Europe said.

"This is worrying because it’s one of many useless attempts to externalise control of European borders with big risks for human rights," Brando Benifei of the Socialists and Democrats group said.

"This EU that does this, it's a lost EU. It's a decadent EU. It's an EU that does not stand up for democracy and human rights," Malin Björk of The Left added.

This is not the first time MEPs have scathingly criticised the EU for cosying up to Tunisia's President Kaïs Saïed, who has previously embraced far-right conspiracies that migrants are plotting to change the country’s demographic make-up.

"Tomorrow at this very spot. President von der Leyen will claim in strong words that she fiercely defends democracy against autocracy," Strik of the Greens group said, "but at the same time, she proudly presents dirty deals with a ruthless dictator."

Europe 'sleepwalking' into a migration crisis

Other MEPs defended the European Commission's agreement as essential to support the EU's border management in the face of high migration levels.

"We need external cooperation. The EU Tunisia Agreement is essential in order to retain strict control of the EU borders, for our own security and for humanitarian reasons," Sara Skyttedal of the EPP said. 

"We need to work decisively long term and on all fronts. We need to get sustainable and common migration policy in place, and we need to deepen cooperation with countries such as Tunisia. Together, we can make a difference and save lives that are tragically lost at sea due to hypocritical migration policy," she added.

Migration is set to be a key issue in the 2024 European elections, as well as in upcoming national elections in Poland and the Netherlands.

The EU has said it wants the Tunisia migration deal to become a blueprint for similar agreements with other North African countries.

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