TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — Ministers from Germany and France tasked with regulating migration are joining forces to try to curb deaths on dangerous routes across the Mediterranean Sea, traveling Sunday for talks with the president and their counterpart in Tunisia, a major North African stepping stone for migrants trying to reach Europe at risk of their lives.
The two-day trip by the German and French interior ministers, Nancy Faeser and Gérald Darmanin, follows what is feared to be the deadliest migrant shipwreck in years in the Mediterranean — the capsizing last week of a fishing vessel packed with men, women and children trying to reach Italy from Libya, Tunisia’s neighbor.
More than 500 migrants are presumed to have drowned in the sinking Wednesday off the southern coast of Greece that renewed criticism of Europe’s yearslong failure to prevent migration tragedies.
The U.N. migration agency said it could be the second-deadliest migrant shipwreck recorded — after the April 2015 capsizing of another vessel on the Libya-Italy route that killed an estimated 1,100 people.
A statement from the German minister’s office about her trip with Darmanin said: “We want to create legal migration routes in order to remove the basis for the inhumane business of smugglers. We want the human rights of refugees to be protected and the terrible deaths on the Mediterranean to stop.”
With migrants, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, undertaking perilous sea crossings from Tunisia in unprecedented numbers, European authorities are seeking reinforced action from the government of Tunisia’s increasingly autocratic president, Kais Saied.
In the first three months of this year, Tunisian authorities intercepted 13,000 people on boats off Tunisia’s eastern port city of Sfax, a main route to Europe for sub-Saharan Africans, who don’t need visas to travel to Tunisia.
As well as working to reduce migrant flows from Tunisia, European authorities are also offering aid to stabilize the North African country, which is in the midst of its deepest economic crisis in a generation. European leaders visiting Tunisia earlier this month held out the promise of more than 1 billion euros in financial aid — including 100 million euros earmarked this year for Tunisian border management and search-and-rescue and anti-smuggling operations.
The German minister’s statement said discussions would focus on “important current migration and security issues,” including promoting legal migration channels, reducing irregular migration and people smuggling, strengthening sea rescue operations and promoting the voluntary return of migrants not entitled to stay in the European Union.
Darmanin, the French minister, did not detail his objectives for the trip to Tunisia in advance. But his ministry confirmed planned meetings on Monday for Darmanin and Faeser with their Tunisian counterpart and with Saied. As well as migration issues and hoped-for strengthened efforts against people smugglers, the French minister also wants to discuss security issues following an attack on a Tunisian island during an annual Jewish pilgrimage in May.
In the attack on Djerba, a Tunisian naval guard shot and killed a colleague and two civilians — one of them French — as he tried to reach the 2,500-year-old Ghriba temple, one of Africa’s oldest synagogues. Security guards killed the attacker. Ten people were injured.