Anti-migration patrols by Frontex off the island's shores have been cancelled after Malta pulled out of the planned operation Chronos, scheduled to start this month.

The Times has learnt that Malta has informed Frontex, the EU agency responsible for coordinating the mission, it was no longer interested in hosting this year's mission.

This is the first time in five years when there will be no anti-migration patrols.

On its part, Frontex cancelled the €9 million operation, although it made it clear it would restart surveillance operations on the central Mediterranean route if Malta changed its position and made a fresh request.

Malta's decision to quit comes just weeks after the EU approved a new code of engagement to be used during Frontex-led missions. This was opposed by the island at EU Council level because it was considered to be against Malta's interests.

However, according to government sources, the decision to withdraw had nothing to do with the guidelines, even though the island still disagreed with them.

"The reason why we decided not to take part in this year's mission is that we feel there is no need for this year's EU patrol," a government spokesman said when contacted.

"We have noticed that, following the introduction of joint patrols by Libya and Italy last year, the number of illegal immigrants reaching Malta has dropped significantly. We feel that, as long as this operation remains in place, there is no real need for another anti-migration mission on behalf of the EU," the spokesman explained.

Statistics obtained from the Home Affairs Ministry show that the number of illegal immigrants reaching Malta in 2009 dropped by more than half over the previous year.

While during 2008 a total of 84 boats with 2,775 illegal immigrants arrived from Libya, the number declined to 17 boats in 2009 and a total of 1,475 illegal immigrants.

The statistics also show that the majority of illegal immigrants reaching the island in 2009 arrived in the first half of the year when the joint Italian-Libyan anti-migration patrols had not yet started.

Since the introduction of the patrols, the flow of illegal immigrants to Malta and Lampedusa has almost stopped and none have reached the island so far this year.

According to the government, it was obvious the patrols by Italy and Libya were proving to be very effective and this was to Malta's benefit.

Asked what would happen if the numbers of illegal immigrants reaching Malta started increasing again this summer, the spokesman said that in that case "Malta will again ask Frontex to commence another mission and we will start negotiations on which rules of engagement are to be used".

Frontex-led anti-migration patrol missions in the Sicily-Malta-Libya strait have been held since 2006. In total, four operations, codenamed Nautilus were organised, two hosted by the Italians and the latest two by the Armed Forces of Malta.

Funded almost entirely by the EU, the missions were not considered to be as effective because Frontex did not have the mandate to turn back boats carrying illegal immigrants on their way to Europe.

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