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Rights activists fear Tunisia deal will be model for bartering EU money for migrants’ lives

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TUNIS, Tunisia — Migrants in Tunisia’s port city of Sfax who are aiming to make Europe their new home are now sharing the burden and the blame for escalating tensions deeply tinged with racism, amid the fears of European leaders who are trying to stanch the numbers of people arriving at their shores.

The antagonism that exploded this month in Sfax between Tunisians and mainly Black sub-Saharan migrants are widely seen as a turning point in how this North African nation deals with the issue of migration — and an opportunity to be seized by Europe.

Hundreds of migrants have drowned at sea trying to reach Italy in fragile boats, but now migrants awaiting their chance to cross the Mediterranean cower in fear, some beaten or bused by authorities to new destinations, others dumped in the desert.

A meeting this week in Tunis of human rights activists from North Africa, West Africa and Europe denounced a summit on migration this Sunday in Rome, saying its goal is to pursue an anti-migrant vision and put the onus on Africa to keep European borders safe from African arrivals. Human Rights Watch also denounced the upcoming Rome gathering, predicting that it will amount to a bartering of values for financial incentives to stave off migrants from European shores.

“Today, the Mediterranean’s calling is no longer to be a bridge between two shores, but a wall separating all of Europe from all of the African continent,” said the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, which organized the Thursday meeting.

Italy is trying to decrease the number of migrant arrivals and stabilize Tunisia, in its worst economic crisis in a generation. Thousands of migrants have arrived in Sfax this year, but there’s no solid figure of how many are in the city, or how many have left since the anti-migrant campaign started.

Tunisia has become the main stepping stone to Italy, Europe’s gateway, replacing Libya, where widespread abuse of migrants has been reported. Of the 76,325 migrant arrivals in Italy so far this year until last Sunday, 44,151 took the sea route from Tunisia compared to 28,842 leaving from Libya, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

President Kais Saied, Tunisia’s increasingly authoritarian leader, stoked racist reactions to migrants in February, saying that sub-Saharans arriving in huge numbers are part of a plot to erase Tunisia’s Islamic identity. He has since tried to walk back such pronouncements, denying claims of racism and saying the migrant issue must be treated at its roots.

That’s one intent of the Rome conference, which will gather nearly 20 heads of state and government or ministers from the Middle East to the Sahel and North Africa, along with European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen and an array of financial institutions.

The one-day summit is part of Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni’s efforts to position Italy at the center of issues impacting the Mediterranean. The conference aims to come up with concrete proposals to decrease migration numbers by addressing the root causes, while combating migrant trafficking. It will also discuss energy policies, including ways to diversify energy sources, and climate change.

It’s widely viewed by human rights advocates as a road map for what is to come.

The Rome summit comes a week after Saied signed a memorandum of understanding for a “comprehensive strategic partnership” in a meeting that included Meloni and von der Leyen. It is said to include nearly 1 billion euros ($1.1 billion) to help restart Tunisia’s hobbled economy and known to include 100 million euros ($111 million) for border control as well as search and rescue missions at sea and repatriating immigrants without residence permits.

Despite signing the deal, the Tunisian president has stressed in the past that Tunisia won’t become Europe’s border guard or serve as a land of resettlement. He had proposed on July 11 a full-blown conference, saying that the solution to the migration issue must deal with causes, not consequences.

Human rights organizations say that bartering money for lives is a betrayal of values. For some opponents, such deals are a new form of neo-colonialism.

Before the Rome summit, New York-based Human Rights Watch denounced such deals as “abusive, ill-conceived and (a) short-sighted strategy.”

“The EU risks not only perpetuating (human rights abuses) but also emboldening repressive rulers, who can brag about warmer relations with European partners while claiming credit for securing financial support for their failing economies.”

With high hopes smashed, migrants cower in fear of the anti-migrant backlash that has forced many from their shelters in Sfax and onto buses to unknown parts.

Security forces had dumped about 500 migrants in the desert border zone with Libya earlier this month, but they were transferred July 10 to other regions of Tunisia, according to the Red Crescent.

Some were forgotten.

Libyan border guards said on June 16 that in the past few days they had found at least six men and women and children stranded under temperatures above 40 C (104 F). That is in addition to a group they came across that day, when they rescued a group of migrants, including women and children, who had been huddling in the hot desert for several days near the Al Assa border point, about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from the Libyan-Tunisian border. The scene was filmed by The Associated Press.

Musa Khalid from Congo, recounting the group’s plight, said that Tunisian officials took their belongings and money before transferring them out of Sfax and dropping them off without food or water.

“As we tried to enter Tunisia again, they beat us badly. They broke my hand and hit my head … We are in the desert now for several days. Sir, please.”

“There are people affected as a result of the cruelty and beating … by Tunisian border guards,” said commander of Al-Assa Desert Border Guard, Maj. Ayman Al-Qadri, carefully adding that he was citing migrants’ statements.

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Elaine Ganley reported from Paris. Colleen Barry contributed to this report from Milan.

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