Tunisia finally sees some migration money from EU despite backlash

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BRUSSELS — The European Commission on Friday unlocked millions for Tunisia despite ongoing criticism over its controversial migrant deal with authoritarian President Kais Saied.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pressed ahead with an agreement to stem migration flows from Tunisia, which has been attacked by allies including the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell and the center-left German government. The Commission chief came under fire for allegedly ignoring EU countries in the negotiations and dismissing human rights in the deal.

The EU executive on Friday announced it will disburse €127 million to the North African state — although the bulk of that funding originates in ongoing programs that predate the migration pact sealed in July. Commission spokesperson Ana Pisonero explained that €60 million of budgetary support — expected to be delivered next week — was already foreseen under Tunisia’s post-COVID recovery plan.

With regard to the agreement signed with Tunis in July, the EU executive said it also intends to hand over a first €42 million to refit rescue vessels and support the Tunisian coast guard, although the Commission did not indicate specific timing for that.

In all, the deal offers €150 million to prop up Tunisia’s ailing budget and €105 million to support its border control — in exchange for help blocking the boats that have been carrying a growing number of people to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The move comes days after the von der Leyen promised to beef up Tunisia’s migration facilities during a visit to Lampedusa with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Italy’s right-wing government has been putting increasing pressure on von der Leyen to unblock funding for the North African state amid surging migrant arrivals to Italy.

Ahead of the decision, the leader of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) Manfred Weber renewed calls on the Commission president to rapidly unblock the €105 million earmarked for Tunisia’s efforts to tamp down migration.

Human rights groups have criticized funneling money to a government accused of repressing its citizens and discriminating against migrants.