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The EU offers aid to an increasingly autocratic Tunisian government to stem migration

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The European Union is offering hundreds of millions of dollars to the Tunisian government. Now, it's meant to help the country's failing economy. In exchange, though, Tunisia has to help stem illegal migration to Europe.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Of which there's been a lot. So far this year, according to Italy, some 75,000 people arrived in smugglers' boats. Thousands of others have died trying to make the journey across the Mediterranean, and many started in Tunisia. The deal means the European Union will be helping to fund a government that has undermined Tunisia's once hopeful young democracy.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's Ruth Sherlock covers the region, joins us now from the U.K. Ruth, tell us more about this deal between the EU and Tunisia. What is being offered?

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Hi. Yeah, well, EU leaders were just there, including the Dutch and Italian prime ministers, on Sunday to try to move this forward. And what the EU is dangling is this prospect of as much as $1 billion in financial aid. Most of that is dependent on Tunisia agreeing to reforms imposed by the IMF. But like you said, you know, the other big piece about this is migration. So the EU, especially Italy, where lots of migrants arrive, is desperate to stop the smugglers' boats that keep coming across the Mediterranean Sea. Even more boats are setting off from Tunisia these days than from Libya. And the EU wants to strengthen the Tunisian coast guard and encourage Tunisia to also send home migrants that arrive there trying to get to Europe.

MARTÍNEZ: Tell us why, though, the nature of the Tunisian government is bringing out critics of this deal?

SHERLOCK: Well, part of it is that Tunisia's president, Kais Saied, has done a lot to unravel Tunisia's democracy that formed after the Arab Spring revolution in 2011. He was elected on a promise to fix the economy. But he's, since then, centralized power to himself, weakened the mandate of parliament, jailed prominent opponents. And critics like Monica Marks, a Tunisian expert and assistant professor at New York University in Abu Dhabi, well, she told me that in dealing with Saied, the EU is sacrificing its principles.

MONICA MARKS: The most important thing about this deal is it symbolically says we in the EU are willing to use our taxpayers' money to achieve our priority in Tunisia, which is stopping migration as much as possible, no matter the cost, no matter how much you violate human rights.

SHERLOCK: She says the deal comes across as a pat on the back for Saied.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, speaking of human rights, one of those concerns over human rights is that, in recent months, there have been attacks against Black Tunisians and migrants from other parts of Africa. What's driving that?

SHERLOCK: Monica Marks and others say Saied has fueled racist sentiment in Tunisia. He denies any allegations of racism, but he's given speeches that cite the conspiracy theory also sometimes used by white nationalists in Europe and the U.S. and rooted in antisemitism. It's known as the, quote, "great replacement" and basically alleges that there's a conspiracy to overwhelm the country with Black Africans.

So this was followed by a wave of attacks in Tunisia in recent months. And Black Tunisians and migrants have been robbed and attacked and evicted from their homes. And so the irony, experts say, is that actually, this may be one of the causes for the increase in illegal migration across the Mediterranean, as people try to flee Tunisia. And there's this concern that actually, in backing Kais Saied's government, that plan may actually backfire and there may actually be more migration to Europe.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Ruth Sherlock in the U.K. Ruth, thanks.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.

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