Merkel said Tunisia had agreed to take back 1,500 rejected Tunisian migrants from Germany, after an attack by a Tunisian on a Christmas market in Berlin which killed 12 people.
Merkel had told Tunisia she wanted to speed up repatriation of failed asylum-seekers after Islamic State supporter Anis Amri drove a truck through the market in December.
Amri had been denied asylum six months earlier. Merkel has come under heavy pressure for policies that allowed a million refugees into Germany in two years.
“We have agreed with Tunisia to send back 1,500 Tunisians in Germany who have been refused (permission) to stay in Germany,” Merkel said at a news conference with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi in Tunis.
“Those who want to return voluntarily will be able to receive aid.”Her two-day trip, which included a stop in Egypt, comes with Germany still reeling from several jihadist attacks, including a truck rampage by a Tunisian suspect at a Berlin Christmas market that killed 12 people.
Merkel’s talks with top officials including President Beji Caid Essebsi are expected to include ways to tackle years of instability exploited by people smugglers in neighbouring Libya.
The visit is also a chance for Merkel to pledge support for a country often hailed as a rare success story of the Arab Spring uprisings that shook the region and toppled autocrats including longtime Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia has passed a new constitution and held free parliamentary and presidential elections.
But the nation faces high unemployment, social tensions and the threat from jihadists who have killed dozens of soldiers and police as well as civilians including 59 foreign tourists.
Merkel, who faces elections in September, is under pressure to reduce the number of asylum seekers coming to Germany, which has taken in more than one million migrants since 2015.
“There are routes for illegal immigration from Libya to Germany. We have a lot of mutual concern and interest in putting an end to this,” she said on Thursday at a press conference with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Merkel, who will address Tunisia’s parliament, has urged the North African states to step up border controls and speed up procedures to repatriate migrants whose asylum applications are rejected.
Signs of progress
On migration, the procedures “were very slow but they have improved recently and will continue to improve”, Germany’s ambassador to Tunisia, Andreas Reinicke, told RTCI public radio.
The Tunisian presidency told AFP that issues surrounding immigration “do not constitute a problem between the two countries… In Europe, everyone has seen that Tunisia now controls its borders much better.”
Germany has said that Tunisian bureaucratic delays meant it could not expel the Tunisian suspect in the Berlin Christmas market attack, Anis Amri, even though his asylum application had been rejected six months earlier.
Essebsi told the news agency AFP in January that Tunisia “is a country which assumes its responsibilities”.
And a Tunisian official, who did not want to be named, said that Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s visit to Germany last month for talks had “helped appease things”.
The migrant issue had already been contentious in Germany where sexual assaults by large groups of mostly North African men on New Year’s Eve 2015-16 against women in Cologne provoked outrage.
Merkel’s interior minister floated an idea for North African countries to build holding centres for returned migrants but it was rejected by Merkel’s centre-left coalition partners and rights groups.
Her trip is part of a larger diplomatic push by the German leader, who last year visited Mali, Niger and Ethiopia.
She had also planned a trip to Algeria last week, but it was called off after President Abdelaziz Bouteflika fell ill.
Germany, which this year holds the G20 presidency, has also announced investment partnerships in Africa with the long-term goals of reducing poverty and deterring people from leaving.
Merkel is joined on her trip by a business delegation that could bring much-needed investments.
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