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Frontex mission will not send migrants back to Libya

The EU's anti-immigration patrols will not turn back immigrants to Libya, as Italy is doing, but "will keep on following the current rules of engagement as established since 2006".

"At the moment Frontex does not plan to change the operational plan for the Nautilus 2009. The Italian development is based on bilateral agreements between Italy and Libya. Frontex is coordinating cooperation between member states but the command and control stays in hands of the hosting country."

The mission, in fact, is being hosted by Malta and according to a Frontex spokesman speaking to The Times yesterday from Warsaw, everything is business as usual and Frontex does not have any intention to return people to Libya, which is Italy's new policy.

So far the Commission has failed to comment on Italy's practice which has been heavily criticised by the UN's refugee agency UNHCR, the Vatican's commission on migration and even the Council of Europe for breaching migrants' human rights.

The main line of protest is that by pushing migrants back out to sea, Italy is not giving immigrants an opportunity to apply for asylum as it is their right to.

Apart from Malta, which is hosting the mission through its armed forces, this year's €10 million EU patrol mission is also being assisted by two helicopters from Germany and an aircraft from Luxembourg.

Italy and Finland are also taking part through experts who will assist the Maltese authorities.

It is not yet clear what the Frontex mission has achieved so far although the number of illegal immigrants coming to Malta since the start of the operation last month has been very limited. Similar operations during the past three years have not really had the desired effect as Malta was still reached by thousands of illegal immigrants.

According to the rules of engagement used in past years, the Frontex mission will only intervene if immigrants are in distress. In these cases, they are given help and taken to the nearest safe port.

Meanwhile, following last week's development when Libya started taking back illegal immigrants found by Italy in international waters, the two countries are expected to start joint patrols for the first time in Libya's territorial waters.

Yesterday, a ceremony was held in the Port of Gaeta in which Italy officially passed on to Libya three patrol boats to be used in these missions.

Italy's Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said during the ceremony that Italy was investing to secure Europe's borders and the EU should take note and start doing the same to help countries such as Italy, Malta and Greece.

These joint patrols, which were meant to have got under way earlier in the year but were postponed several times, form part of a bilateral agreement signed between Rome and Tripoli which also includes substantial financial assistance to Libya.

According to Minister Maroni, these joint patrols should stop illegal immigrants departing from Libya to Lampedusa and southern Italy. Almost all illegal immigrants arriving in Malta leave from the 2,000 kilometre long Libyan coast.

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