The European Commission announced on Friday the first round of payments under the contentious EU-Tunisia memorandum of understanding.
The executive will release nearly €127 million in the coming weeks to buttress Tunisia's wobbling economy and curtail irregular departures of migrants.
The disbursements come amid increasing political pressure from the Italian government, which is struggling to manage a new influx of asylum seekers on Lampedusa.
More than 10,000 migrants arrived from Tunisia to the tiny island in a matter of days, prompting an emergency visit by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the weekend.
During the trip, von der Leyen unveiled a 10-point action plan and vowed to speed up the disbursement of funds under the memorandum of understanding that was controversially signed with Tunisia in July.
Friday's announcement is a direct response to von der Leyen's pledge.
The new envelope is split into two strands: €60 million for budgetary assistance and almost €67 million for migration support.
The €60 million comes from an instrument previously earmarked for post-coronavirus recovery and is not part of the €150 million promised under the memorandum.
The budgetary support will be directly sent to the Tunisian treasury with the ultimate goal of preventing a financial meltdown inside the crisis-hit country, a scenario that Brussels fears would push a larger number of migrants to European shores.
Meanwhile, the €67-million strand for migration combines two sources:
- €24.7 million from a financial instrument adopted in 2022.
- €42 million from the €105-million envelope included in the memorandum to combat smuggling operations, reinforce border management and accelerate the return of asylum seekers whose applications are denied.
The €67 million will be divided between Tunisia's coast guard and navy, which will receive search-and-rescue vessels, thermals cameras, radars and other surveillance equipment, and NGOs that offer services on the ground, such as the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR).
It's unclear how much money will go to each.
"We will have different implementing partners," a Commission spokesperson said on Friday afternoon. "Contracts are in the process of going forward."
Ever since its signature, the EU-Tunisia memorandum has become the target of intense criticism and media scrutiny, with strong attention to human rights.
Tunisia, under the strong-arm leadership of President Kais Saied, has been repeatedly accused of committing abuses and collective expulsions of sub-Saharan migrants, many of whom have been found abandoned in the middle of the desert near the Libyan border.
Saied has made racist comments on black Africans and denounced what he calls a "criminal plan to change the composition of the demographic landscape of Tunisia," words that echo the far-right conspiracy theory known as the "great replacement."
Last week, the European Ombudsman formally asked the Commission to clarify how the memorandum will ensure that Tunisian authorities respect fundamental rights in their operations to curtail irregular flows of migration.
"Under the (memorandum), the EU and Tunisia have agreed to cooperate in full respect of the principles of international law and respect for the dignity of migrants," said the Commission spokesperson when asked about financial safeguards.
"Contracts will now be signed. But, in general terms, EU contracts always have standards clauses of human rights."