Italy hosted Mediterranean leaders in Rome on Sunday at a conference aimed at extending an EU-backed deal with Tunisia to curb the arrival of migrants on European shores.
The summit convened by Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni laid the foundations for a fund to finance investment projects and support border controls, with a medium-term aim of better regulating migratory flows.
Opening the conference, Meloni said talks would focus on illegal and legal immigration, refugee support and "the most important... wide cooperation to support development in Africa."
The day of talks was the "start of a process" that would be followed with a donors' conference to finance investment projects and support border control, Meloni said, adding that no date had yet been set.
The United Arab Emirates pledged 100 million euros ($111 million) to that fund, Meloni said in a press conference following the conference.
Ahead of the talks, Pope Francis appealed to the leaders to help the scores of people who try to enter Europe each year in search of a better life as they flee poverty and conflict.
"The Mediterranean can no longer be the theatre of death and inhumanity", the pontiff said during his weekly Angelus prayer.
During the 2022 election campaign that brought her to power, the far-right Meloni vowed to "stop the disembarkation" of migrants in Italy, which the government puts at nearly 80,000 coastal arrivals since January, compared to 33,000 in the same period last year.
But while the government has put obstacles in the path of humanitarian ships rescuing migrants in the Mediterranean, it has failed to stop the departures themselves, which mostly originate in Tunisia and Libya.
Italy and the European Commission have sought to step up engagement with Tunisia, promising funding if it stems emigration from its territory.
Meloni has also sought to act as an intermediary between Tunisia — cash-strapped and on the cusp of a major debt crisis – and the International Monetary Fund, where a nearly $2 billion bailout package for the North African country has stalled amid an IMF demand for structural reforms.
Last week, the EU signed a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia that provides for 105 million euros (about $117 million dollars) in direct European aid to prevent the departure of migrant boats and combat smugglers.
The deal also provides for more Tunisians who arrive illegally to be repatriated, and for sub-Saharan African migrants in Tunisia to be sent back to their countries of origin.
A much larger EU package to Tunisia, a long-term loan of around 900 million euros (or $ 1 billion dollars) proposed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in June, is conditional on approval of the IMF loan.
"Tunisia is a nation that is in extreme distress and clearly leaving it to its fate can have consequences that are very serious," Meloni told reporters on Sunday.
A senior European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity confirmed the EU is hoping for similar partnerships with Egypt and Morocco.
"We must cooperate with the countries of North Africa, even if to do so we have to accept that they are not perfect democracies," a Rome-based ambassador told AFP.
"There is unity in the EU on this principle."
Attending the conference on Sunday were the presidents of Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Mauritania, along with EU chiefs Von der Leyen and Charles Michel, plus Filippo Grandi, head of the United Nations refugee agency.
Prime ministers from Algeria, Egypt, Ethiopia, Jordan, Lebanon, Malta and Niger were also present, and Greece, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait sent ministers.
Notably absent were representatives from France and Spain.
Federica Infantino, researcher at the Migration Policy Center of the European University Institute, said a new deal with Tunisia would change little.
"You can't think of migration as the water that comes out of the tap, to be turned on and off as certain politicians see fit," Infantino said.
But for Meloni's political needs, there are "strong symbolic stakes," she added.
Human rights groups and charities that rescue migrants attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing are furious about the deal.
Human Rights Watch called it "a new low in the European Union's efforts to curb migrants' arrivals at any cost" that "pays only lip service to human rights."
"It shows that Europe has learned nothing from its complicity in the horrendous abuses of migrants in Libya," the group said Thursday.
"The Mediterranean is not only a graveyard. It is a crime scene," tweeted German NGO Sea-Watch.
Independent researcher Yves Pascouau said dialogue between Europe and the countries of migrants' departure is positive, as are attempts to boost trade and investments in green energy.
But as long as migration policy depends on European interior ministers, the issue will only be tackled from a security point of view, Pascouau noted.
According to the UN, more than 100,000 migrants arrived by sea to Europe — most to Italy — in the first six months of 2023, from the coasts of North Africa, Turkey and Lebanon.
There were just over 189,000 such arrivals last year.
With fewer than 80,000 asylum applications registered last year, Italy lags behind Germany, France, Spain and Austria.