The European Union is to start releasing money to Tunisia under a pact aimed at stemming irregular migration from the country, the European Commission has said.
A first payment of 127 million euros ($135m) will be disbursed “in the coming days”, commission spokesperson Ana Pisonero said.
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Pisonero added that, of the 127 million euros to be “swiftly” disbursed, 42 million euros ($44.7m) came under the migration aspect of the July deal. The rest was for previously agreed programmes, with 60 million euros ($63.9m) to help Tunisia with its budget.
Tunisia and the EU in July reached a “strategic partnership” deal to fight irregular migration in return for financial support during a sharp increase in boats leaving the North African nation for Europe.
Under the agreement signed by commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, Tunisia will get 105 million euros ($112m) to curb irregular migration, 150 million euros ($160m) in budgetary support and 900 million euros ($959m) in long-term aid.
Von der Leyen said at the time of the signature that the deal could serve as a model for agreements with other countries, as the EU struggles to stem unauthorised flows of refugees and migrants across the Mediterranean.
Tunisia is one of the main launching points for boats carrying refugees and migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean for Europe, with most heading for Italy, in particular its island of Lampedusa.
EU lawmakers, the bloc’s ombudsman and migrant assistance charities have questioned whether the deal with Tunisia, strongly supported by Italy’s far-right government, meets European rights standards.
According to an EU statement, it aims to bolster Tunis’s coastguard to prevent boats from leaving its shore by providing new vessels, thermal cameras and other operational assistance as well as refitting search and rescue vessels. It will also bolster cooperation with the United Nations on the protection of refugees and migrants and their return to their countries of origin.
Some of the money also goes to UN agencies assisting migrants.
Tunisian President Kais Saied has been criticised in Brussels for his increasingly authoritarian rule. The EU ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, last week demanded the commission explain how the pact with Tunisia will not breach human rights standards.
MEPs have also raised that question, pointing out that hundreds of sub-Saharan refugees and migrants in Tunisia had allegedly in recent months been taken to the desert near the Libyan border and left to fend for themselves.
Tunisia has bristled at the criticism, and last week barred entry to a European Parliament fact-finding delegation.
The North African country is struggling with high debt and poor liquidity and has suffered bread and power shortages. Its hopes of accessing a $1.9bn bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are hobbled by a refusal to undertake IMF-mandated reforms.
Saied seized wide-ranging powers in 2021, shutting down parliament before passing a new constitution that gives him near-total authority. He has said his actions were legal and necessary to save Tunisia from chaos and rampant corruption.