Army expresses caution as immigration arrivals dip
The army is reluctant to offer an opinion on what appears to be a lull in the number of immigrant arrivals throughout May, saying there are no clear reasons for the slower activity.
Even though the number of African migrant arrivals since the beginning of the year, 890, is a record, the anticipated influx of immigrants at the start of warmer months has not yet materialised despite good weather conditions. Just 66 people reached Malta in May, the lowest number in five years.
Major Andrew Mallia from the Armed Forces of Malta operations branch was reluctant to read too much into the situation.
He also declined to offer an assessment of the joint patrols between Italy and Libya, which started in the beginning of May, since the AFM was "not privy" to the agreement.
"We know there was a handover of boats to Libya, but we are not aware of their rules of engagement, how they are conducting their operations, where and whether they have been effective," he said.
Italy and Libya reached an agreement to jointly start patrolling the Libyan coast in a bid to stem immigration flows. Apart from this, Italy is applying a policy of forced repatriation, returning rescued migrants to Libya.
These efforts, coupled with Libya's apparent crackdown on human smugglers, coincided with the slowdown of immigrant arrivals in May.
However, the army remains cautious. Major Mallia said: "If you look at statistics from the beginning of January to the end of May, this is actually the worst year in terms of arrivals.
"But we know this was due to the arrival of a smaller number of larger boats. There does seem to be less activity but I would be reluctant to draw any conclusions on such a short timespan."
Major Mallia explained that the cyclical trends in immigration could not be explained. He highlighted 2003 as a case in point.
"In that year, only 500 immigrants arrived, when a year earlier we had almost 1,700 people. The number shot up again in 2004 when we had almost 1,400 arrivals. The drastic variation in pattern that occurred in 2003 remains unexplained till today," he said.
The army will continue to monitor the situation closely, he said.
"Until now it does not result that there has been an upsurge of arrivals in other areas of the Mediterranean. There has not been any shift in the routes used by immigrants," Major Mallia said.