Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni hugs British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Atreju 2023 political festival in the gardens of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy, 16 December 2023. EPA-EFE/ANGELO CARCONI


Italy and UK agree deal to return migrants in Tunisia to their home countries


The UK and Italy have agreed on a joint finance scheme to send migrants stuck in Tunisia back to their home countries in the latest bid to tackle the European migration crisis.

British Conservative Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, speaking on December 16 at a political festival in Rome organised by Italian counterpart Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, said radical solutions were needed to protect countries’ borders.

“If we do not tackle this problem, the numbers will only grow,” he told the gathering of Italian Conservatives and right-wingers. “It will overwhelm our countries and our capacity to help those who actually need our help the most.

“If that requires us to update our laws and lead an international conversation to amend the post-war frameworks around asylum, then we must do that.

“Because if we don’t fix this problem now, the boats will keep coming and more lives will be lost at sea.”

Stopping small-boat crossings of the English Channel is one of Sunak’s priorities. According to Home Office figures published on the same day as his speech, 292 people had made the voyage to the UK in seven small vessels the previous day.

Following the talks between Sunak and Meloni, Downing Street issued a statement saying the pair had agreed on a co-funded project that would see the two countries “promote and assist the voluntary return” of migrants currently stuck in Tunisia. Financial details were not mentioned.

The statement added that both “agreed on the vital importance of tackling the scourge of illegal migration”.

“They agreed that innovative structural solutions, like the UK’s Rwanda policy, were necessary to break the model of people smugglers and regain control of movement into and across Europe.”

As Italy’s southern neighbour across the Mediterranean, Tunisia is the starting point for many migrants to begin their journey to Europe and attracts hopefuls from several African countries.

During his day-long trip to Rome, Sunak and Meloni also held talks with Albania’s Prime Minister Edi Rama, another ally in their efforts to crack down on illegal migration.

The British leader headlined Meloni’s annual Atreju event – named after a character in the novel and film The Neverending Story, reflecting her interest in fantasy literature.

He took to the stage after tech billionaire and X owner Elon Musk, who spoke of the dangers of what he called the “woke-mind virus” and the need to tackle unchecked migration.