Updated: Maroni, Mifsud Bonnici to have talks in Libya
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Updated: Maroni, Mifsud Bonnici to have talks in Libya

Malta welcomes Italy-Libya arrangement

Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni this afternoon brought down tensions between Malta and Italy over illegal immigration, saying that in the next few weeks he would travel to Libya with his “esteemed colleague” Carm Mifsud Bonnici, to discuss immigration.

They will be accompanied by EU Justice and Home Affairs Commissioner Jacques Barrot.

Sig Maroni referred to the immediate repatriation of migrants rescued yesterday and said this was an important signal to the people traffickers.

“Whoever leaves from Libya will be sent back,” he told a RAI interviewer with reference to illegal migrants.

Italy yesterday repatriated 226 migrants rescued from three boats off Lampedusa. The patrol boats which rescued the migrants proceeded directly to Libya. The migrants included a group of 140 who had drifted on two boats for most of the day while Malta and Italy argued over responsibility.

Sig Maroni also commented earlier today that the immediate repatriation of the migrants to Libya could be a step to ending the current controversies on migrant responsibility with Malta.

But the UN High Commission for Refugees said it was "very concerned" over the development.

"The migrants were unable to make any demands for asylum because they weren't even received," Laura Boldrini, spokeswoman of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, told AFP.

Last year, 75 percent of those who arrived in Italy, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, sought political or humanitarian asylum, and half of those obtained it, according to UNHCR figures.

The other two-thirds of the thousands of people who flock to Italy and Malta each year are economic migrants seeking a better life in Europe.

Libya has not signed the 1951 Geneva convention on refugees and has no reception centres for political refugees, Boldrini noted.

For its part, the humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF - Doctors Without Borders) slammed what it called a "terrible event".

"Far from being a historic event as the Italian government suggests, this forcible and cynical return is contrary to international laws," the head of MSF-Italy, Loris de Filippi, told AFP.

"You can't send people back to a country like Libya that hasn't ratified international humanitarian conventions like the Geneva convention on human rights," De Filippi said.

Speaking on Italian television, Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League party, said the speedy return of the boat people to their starting point "may be a turning point in the struggle".

Maroni said today that if Tripoli continued to take back boat people, "the dispute between Italy and Malta on the intake of illegal immigrants will be resolved because regardless of the waters where the boats are found they will be sent back to Libya from where they left".

Some 36,900 boat people arrived on Italian shores last year, a 75 percent increase over 2007, according to interior ministry figures.

Arrivals have fallen off this year, with some 3,600 arriving between January and mid-April, but the pace is expected to quicken in the warm summer months, the ministry said.

Tripoli agreed to step up the fight against illegal immigration under a friendship accord between Italy and Libya signed in August 2008. Notably, it said it would take part in joint patrols with Italy.

Maroni said the patrols were to begin on May 15 after a brief period of training for Libyan crews aboard Italian launches.

"On May 15, when the accord will take effect... the problem (of illegal immigration from Libya) will be resolved," Maroni said in late March after more than 600 boat people landed in Lampedusa.

MALTA GOVERNMENT STATEMENT

The Maltese Ministry of Home Affairs in a statement this afternoon said it had noted the Italian statement that agreement had been reached with Libya for the repatriation of 226 migrants rescued from three boats yesterday.

The ministry said this was a positive development after Malta insisted yesterday that since the migrants were closer to Lampedusa than to Malta, they should be rescued by the Italian authorities.

The agreement was also welcome in the context of the argument made by Malta that rather than argue between themselves, Malta and Italy should persuade the EU that Libya should be assisted through a comprehensive programme so that this problem could be resolved.

The arrangement between Libya and Italy, as well as the recent agreement between Libya and Malta on search and rescue, should meant that fewer persons would lose their life trying to transit the Mediterranean, the ministry said.

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