Europe risks huge migrant inflows without aid to Tunisia, Italian minister says

FILE PHOTO-Italy's Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani speaks to representatives during a meeting at the United Nations Security Council to mark one year since Russia invaded Ukraine, at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., February 24, 2023. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

MILAN (Reuters) - Europe risks seeing "tens, maybe hundreds of thousands" of sea migrants arrive on its shores from North Africa if economic aid is not granted soon to Tunisia, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said on Friday.

Bailout talks between Tunisia and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been stalled for months, with the U.S., among others, demanding far-reaching reforms from President Kais Saied to free up the cash.

"Tunisia urgently needs aid. We cannot waste time", Tajani told RAI public radio.

Tajani said he had proposed to fellow EU foreign ministers on Monday to split the bailout funds into instalments, with a first payment freed up immediately and later ones linked to progress on reforms.

"We risk having tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of people in the Mediterranean Sea who will be on the move ...," Tajani said.

Having received more than 20,000 boat migrants so far in 2023, Italy is on track to beat the all-time high for arrivals set in 2016, when 181,436 people reached the country mostly in flimsy boats.

Most are coming through North Africa from sub-Saharan Africa, but a senior official in Rome says the Italian government is worried that many Tunisians will be on the move, too, if their country's economy collapses.

According to United Nations data, at least 12,000 of those who have reached Italy this year set sail from Tunisia, against 1,300 in the same period of 2022.

On Thursday, a Tunisian judicial official said at least five migrants had died and another 33 were missing after four boats sank off Tunisia while trying to cross the Mediterranean to Italy.

(Reporting by Gianluca Semeraro; Editing by Bradley Perrett)

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