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Italy renegotiates migrant arrangement with Libya

Italy’s Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi and Tonio Borg yesterday. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Italy’s Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi and Tonio Borg yesterday. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

The Italian government is renegotiating its arrangement on immigration with the new Libyan government, according to Foreign Affairs Minister Giulio Terzi.

Speaking at a press conference in Malta yesterday Mr Terzi said Italy had started fresh negotiations with the transitional government after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi last year.

In 2009 the Italian government, then led by Silvio Berlusconi, had reached an agreement with the Libyan regime by which the Italian side would automatically send back to Libya immigrants rescued at sea without giving them the opportunity to claim protection under international law.

The practice was declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in a landmark judgment last February, which ruled that Italy broke the human rights of Somali and Eritrean nationals rescued at sea in when they were immediately taken back to Libya as part of a controversial bilateral agreement.

Meanwhile, Italian Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri was reported by AFP saying Italy has seen a drastic reduction in the number of immigrants on its shores. This was partly thanks to a deal with North African countries to prevent boat departures.

Only 8,000 would-be migrants have arrived in Italy since the start of 2012 compared with 60,000 last year during the refugee and immigrant exodus caused by the Arab Spring.

Mr Terzi yesterday did not give details of the agreement being reached with the new Libyan government but said the “point is the full respect by both countries of international standards and in human rights and freedoms”.

The ECHR ruling confirmed the stand taken by international NGOs, which had long been insisting that migrants could not be automatically be sent back to Libya, particularly because the country is not a signatory of the Geneva Convention, which guarantees a set of basic rights of asylum seekers.

Mr Terzi’s comments were made at a joint press conference with his Maltese counterpart, Tonio Borg, after the two signed an agreement that seeks a solution to long-standing disputes between Malta and Italy over the rescue of migrants at sea and oil exploration.

The deal, which set up a mixed commission on similar lines to the ones Malta has with Tunisia and Libya, will see technical teams from both sides meet to try to find a mutual understanding.

On the immigration front, Malta and Italy have long argued over who should take action when vessels are in distress in specific areas at sea and where survivors should be taken after rescue.

The commission will see military teams from both sides try to chart parameters of who should carry out a rescue in certain scenarios and who should take the survivors.

On oil exploration, which has also historically seen the two sides argue over border lines – a dispute Malta also has with Tunisia and Libya – Dr Borg said Malta had put on the table a number of options for discussion with the Italian government.

“I will not make public what these options are at this premature stage of discussions but we seek to find a solution that would not prejudice the sovereignty of both countries,” Dr Borg said.

Mr Terzi said the agreement provides a schedule of how both countries could commit themselves further to work on along the lines of similar arrangements that Italy has with its closest partners.

The agreement comes ahead of the 5+5 Summit between October 5 and 6, which, for the first time since the Arab Spring will convene the leaders of the grouping – five Euro-Mediterranean states with five counterparts from North Africa – around a table in Malta.

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