Regional leaders, including Mikati, attend Med migration conference in Rome aimed at creating donors' fund

This photo taken and obtained from Italian news agency Ansa on July 23, 2023, shows a family photo of heads of state and other participants at the International Conference on Migration in Rome. (Credit: AFP/Stringer)

Italy hosted Mediterranean leaders, including Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, 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 irregular and regular immigration, refugee support and "the most important... wide cooperation to support development in Africa."

The international community should look to Lebanon as a "model in resolving the [irregular migration] crisis," Mikati said Sunday, also calling on support

“Our resources are very limited, if any, to contain the impact of this refugee crisis on the fabric of Lebanese society and infrastructure in general, and we have been hosting Syrian refugees since 2012,” Mikati said, urging the international community to "allocate sufficient resources to fortify border control measures.”

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“Lebanon is ready to engage in constructive dialogue and cooperation with all international partners to develop a common road map to address this crisis, and we are keen to enhance our cooperation with the European Union in this endeavor," he added.

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 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 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.

EU unity

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 UN 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 Centre 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.

'Crime scene'

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.

Earlier in July, the European Parliament passed a 16-point resolution on Lebanon dealing with various issues, including the political crisis and the Beirut blast. The 13th paragraph, which refers to the presence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, triggered controversy at home.

While Article 13 does not explicitly call for Syrian refugees to remain in Lebanon, it states that "the conditions required for a voluntary and dignified return of refugees are not present."

This reflects the position the international community has taken over the years. The text also calls on Lebanon "to refrain from expelling, imposing discriminatory measures and inciting hatred against Syrian refugees.

Mikati blasted this resolution in Rome and stated that “instead of acknowledging and motivating my country's resilience — and the vigilance of the Lebanese Armed Forces — in the face of the refugee crisis, we find ourselves being blamed, or rather punished for our hospitality and efforts.”

Amid increased deportations of Syrians from Lebanon in recent months, rights groups have decried dangerous conditions inside Syria.

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch reported that Lebanon had arrested more than 2,000 Syrians and deported 1,800 since April amid increasingly aggressive policing of displaced Syrian communities in Lebanon and a rise in anti-Syrian refugee rhetoric.

Italy hosted Mediterranean leaders, including Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, 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...