Europe risks seeing a huge wave of migrants arriving on its shores from North Africa if financial stability in Tunisia is not safeguarded, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Friday.
Tunisia has been gripped by political upheavals since July 2021, when President Kais Saied seized most powers, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
Bailout talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have been stalled for months, with the United States, among others, demanding far-reaching reforms from Saied to free up the cash.
"Maybe not everyone is aware of the need to preserve the financial stability in a country which has severe financial problems," Meloni told reporters following a summit of European Union leaders in Brussels.
"If we do not adequately address those problems we risk unleashing an unprecedented wave of migration."
Earlier on Friday Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani told RAI public radio Europe could see "tens, maybe hundreds of thousands" of boat migrant arrivals if economic aid is not granted soon to Tunisia.
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.
European Economic Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni will travel to Tunis on March 27 to meet with Tunisian officials and discuss the reforms envisaged by the government, his office said on Friday.
The Commission could consider offering financial assistance "if the preconditions are met", the statement said.
More than 20,000 boat migrants have arrived in Italy so far in 2023, a trend that threatens the all-time record set in 2016 when 181,436 people reached the country, mostly in flimsy vessels.
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.