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The EU and Tunisia have agreed to co-operate on curbing migration as part of an economic support package, a sign of Brussels’ increased effort to collaborate with third countries to lower the number of people reaching its shores.

Tunisian president Kais Saied signed a memorandum of understanding with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and the Dutch and Italian prime ministers, Mark Rutte and Giorgia Meloni, in Tunis on Sunday, including more than €100mn to strengthen border controls.

“We need to crack down on criminal networks of smugglers and traffickers,” von der Leyen said, adding that the co-operation would address “root causes in full respect of the international law”. The agreement will also facilitate returns of third-country nationals to their home countries.

The EU, in particular Italy, has been concerned that a worsening of the economy in Tunisia could spur more people trying to cross the Mediterranean. So far this year, more than 75,000 people have arrived in Italy by boat, according to the interior ministry, more than double compared with the same period last year. A sharp increase in boats setting out from Tunisia has been one factor behind the surge.

The deal is part of an offer of more than €1bn the EU made in June to aid Tunisia’s embattled economy and address the rising number of people arriving in Europe from there. However, the bulk of that offer — up to €900mn — is linked to an IMF reform package of $1.9bn to which Saied has yet to agree. Until then, the EU would provide additional budget support, von der Leyen said, which was previously set at €150mn.

After the signing, Saied suggested he was still opposed to the IMF reform package. He said there was “a need to find new ways to co-operate outside the global financial system”.

Accusations of rights abuses and mistreatment of migrants by the Tunisian authorities have prompted criticism of the deal, including by EU lawmakers. Saied has repeatedly said migrants from sub-Saharan Africa were part of a plot to change his country’s demographic make-up, triggering racist violence.

Demonstrators chant anti-racism slogans during a protest in Tunis on Friday © Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this month Tunisian authorities transported 500 to 700 people from sub-Saharan Africa to its remote desert border with Libya and left them there without food, water or medical attention. They had been rounded up after clashes broke out between sub-Saharan Africans and Tunisian residents in the coastal city of Sfax. After a few days, the authorities allowed the Tunisian Red Crescent to supply aid, and within a week reports said they were transported to towns in the south of Tunisia.

The deal with Tunisia should function as a model for similar agreements with northern African countries, Italy’s Meloni said, as the EU looks to its neighbours to help manage migration. In 2016, the EU clinched a similar but less comprehensive agreement with Turkey.

Rights campaigners and lawyers have said deals with third countries on migration have not always been effective and contributed to violations.

“Bolstering the state security apparatus and border controls of third countries doesn’t stop migration, it just forces asylum seekers and migrants to take longer and more dangerous routes,” Imogen Sudbery of the International Rescue Committee said.

“Arrivals become much more difficult, which means that smuggling networks are actually fuelled by those policies . . . and people are put at risk,” said Minos Mouzourakis, legal officer at Refugee Support Aegean.

He added that relying on authoritarian regimes to manage migration “creates political dependency”.

“Turkey no longer readmits people from Greece, and in all sorts of other discussions on potential concessions from either side migration is very often used as a bargaining chip,” he said regarding the EU-Turkey deal.

Activists are also concerned that such agreements could generally curtail access to an asylum hearing. Tunisia does not have a functioning asylum system, meaning those seeking protection usually have to rely on a mission by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or travel on to other countries.

“There is an asylum process in the EU but then there are all sorts of structures, agreements and processes to stop anyone from ever being able to claim that right in the EU,” said Stephanie Pope from the non-governmental organisation Oxfam.

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