Frontex no solution as Libya fails to cooperate

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Frontex has admitted that its patrols in the Mediterranean are not the answer to Malta's illegal immigration problem because Libya continues to resist cooperation.

Statistics seen by The Times show that, despite having been in operation for six months, the Frontex mission - the biggest that it has coordinated off Malta's shores - has not prevented the number of illegal immigrants from soaring. Last year, in the first six months, 769 illegal immigrants landed on Maltese shores. This year, the number had already reached 896 by June 30, an increase of 16 per cent.

Asked whether these statistics prove that the EU's mission is not working, a spokesman for Frontex, the EU border security agency, admitted that the operation is not Malta's solution to illegal immigration. Without mentioning Libya by name, he insisted that cooperation by countries from where the illegal immigrants leave is crucial.

"The number of people arriving in Malta will not decrease automatically thanks to this joint operation as this takes place in international waters where the international law of the sea applies," the spokesman explained. He made it clear that Frontex cannot in any way stop a boat carrying illegal immigrants in international waters and does not have the mandate to do so.

"Assets deployed in the Nautilus III mission can only follow the boat carrying would-be immigrants and apprehend them when they enter the territory of one of the EU member states."

Asked whether this effectively means that Malta is getting more immigrants as a result of increased patrols in international waters, the spokesman answered that the operations are still a deterrent to criminal organisations.

Sources close to Frontex admitted that "if Libya keeps ignoring calls from the EU, its member states and Frontex to cooperate in the patrolling of its sea borders, the current surveillance patrols in the Mediterranean coordinated by the EU's border agency cannot be effective."

It is an open secret that almost all the illegal immigrants arriving in Malta start their voyage from Libyan ports. Despite regular meetings held over the past four years between the EU and Libya, apart from diplomatic pressure exerted by Malta and Italy on Tripoli to start cooperating in these patrols, Libya has refused to do so. It has made it clear that Frontex patrols are not allowed to enter its territorial waters.

Italian government sources confirmed that a bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya signed last year for joint patrols between the two countries has not been implemented by Libya.

On the other hand, another Frontex mission similar to Nautilus III, held in the waters between the Spanish Canary Island and West Africa, is producing different results thanks to the cooperation of Senegal and Mauritania, the countries of origin of illegal immigrants in that part of Africa.

According to Frontex, since the start of this mission, called Hera, 2,383 illegal immigrants were turned back to Senegal and Mauritania and 79 criminals organising the trips were arrested.

The Frontex spokesman said that the main difference between Hera and Nautilus is that Senegal and Mauritania are on board.

"Thanks to an agreement signed between Spain and these two countries, on board of each member state's patrolling vessel, there is a Senegalese and Mauritanian officer who have the right to order the boat of would-be illegal immigrants to turn back," the spokesman said.

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