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Italo-Libyan agreement could still be emulated

Opposition spokesman for foreign affairs Leo Brincat said it was time for a new stocktaking exercise on the current situation with irregular immigration, and that more countries should follow the USA's lead in taking in irregular immigrants, "putting their money where their mouth is".

Mr Brincat said irregular immigration had surprisingly not featured as a major issue in the recent general elections. This was right, because the topic should never divide government and opposition politically.

The President's speech at the state opening of Parliament had said little or nothing about irregular immigration. On its part, the opposition had said in a statement that the foreign policy aspect of the issue should bear the stamp of collectivity. Long-term solutions should continue to be sought, with regional development and security being kept among the priorities.

Note should be taken of the great burden being placed on Malta's resources through irregular immigration, while Malta itself should always respect its onuses in the matter.

There should be a proper stocktaking of the situation, especially in view of recent international developments. The government should speak out about such developments, such as the Italo-Libyan agreement for Italian and Libyan patrol boats to patrol the Libyan coast in an effort to stop boatloads of irregular immigrants heading for Italy.

The new government in Italy had now expressed new intentions. Also recently, there had been the US decision to take in hundreds of irregular migrants from Malta. The US State Department 2007 Country Report on Terrorism had said Malta was becoming an ever-greater magnet for terror organisations in the light of increasing irregular immigration.

Mr Brincat said that as soon as he and Dr Gavin Gulia had got to know of the Italo-Libyan agreement, they had issued a statement saying that such an agreement was of great importance to Malta, more so in view of its small size. Such an agreement could not but be taken as a success in the developing situation.

The opposition had always said that the burden of irregular immigration could not be borne by Malta alone, but with the help of the international community. One should not forget that the Italo-Libyan agreement had not just been about patrols but also about the repatriation process.

The agreement had become an issue of confusion because some said it had never been signed, some that it did not exist, others that there had simply been an agreement in principle, and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg had just confirmed that the agreement had been signed but was not yet in operation.

Mr Brincat said that Italy received on average 15,000 irregular immigrants a year. Considering the country's size, economic wealth and other factors, it was not much to endure. Malta had a much greater burden to shoulder per capita, yet Libya was not giving Malta the same treatment as Italy.

The Italo-Libyan agreement showed that this sort of thing could happen, and diplomacy could yet achieve positive results even between Malta and Libya. When Mr Brincat and Dr Gulia had asked the government how far it had got with Libya, Dr Borg had said the Italo-Libyan agreement could serve as a breakthrough for Malta because Libya had recognised how it could help.

Mr Brincat said that from the recent interview with the Libyan ambassador with The Times, he had got the impression that the Libyans thought the principal problem was not simply irregular immigration to Europe but entry into Libya, and they needed help to prevent this. The opposition agreed with Minister Borg that one should be pragmatic and see how things developed in practice.

Dr Borg had said Malta had not been able to come to a similar agreement with Libya because it did not have the necessary resources to offer for patrolling purposes. Mr Brincat said more should be done because innocent people were falling prey to unscrupulous traffickers who might even have godfathers in positions of influence.

Labour was still of the opinion that in a purely bilateral context between Malta and Libya, in order to foster mutual confidence there should be a joint plan to include the issue of irregular immigration. In such a joint action plan it was important to include both Maltese and Libyan priorities. This was a delicate subject that was expected to be brought up at the next meeting of the Maltese-Libyan joint commission, which so far had been largely unsuccessful on irregular immigration.

Mr Brincat said he considered the opposition's friendship with the USA as honest, although not preclusive of adverse comments when these were called for. He saluted the American government for having decided, on its own steam, to start an ongoing programme of taking in asylum seekers. More countries should follow suit and put their money where their mouth was.

The US Department of State's report was neither racist nor xenophobic, but the study's conclusions called for comments. He recalled that during a meeting of the House Foreign and EU Affairs Committee, when Silvio Berlusconi still headed the government before Romano Prodi, after Italy had said there could be a terroristic danger from irregular immigration, then Justice Minister Tonio Borg had said he did not feel it was realistic in Malta's case. The government had now said that the report was realistic and agreed with it.

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