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Media in Italy questioning ‘secret Malta migrant deal’

An Italian coast guard vessel last April brought 24 dead migrants to Malta while survivors were taken to Italy. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

An Italian coast guard vessel last April brought 24 dead migrants to Malta while survivors were taken to Italy. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Over the past two years, Italy eased the pressure on Malta by bearing the brunt of migrant flows but a political slip this week ignited speculation the island conceded “something” in return.

The Italian media pounced on a statement by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela on Tuesday that there was “an informal agreement” between the two countries on where migrants should disembark.

Despite a quick correction by Mr Abela a few hours after his original declaration, emphasising there was no informal agreement but only “close collaboration”, the media in Italy yesterday reported that the ‘secret’ deal could be related to oil exploration rights to the south of Sicily.

According to a leading article in Il Giornale, which supports the Italian Opposition, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has agreed with Joseph Muscat to exchange irregular migrants for oil exploration rights.

It is being suspected that, in exchange for Italy taking all irregular immigrants, Malta has conceded oil exploration rights in areas disputed by both Italy and Malta

Quoting unnamed sources, the daily said that “it is being suspected that, in exchange for Italy taking all irregular immigrants, Malta has conceded oil exploration rights in areas disputed by both Italy and Malta”.

Questions about the Italian media reports sent to the Home Affairs Ministry remained unanswered at the time of writing.

Though until a few years ago the two neighbouring countries had frequent disputes over where migrants rescued in Malta’s vast maritime search and rescue area should disembark, the problem came to a complete halt following meetings between the two prime ministers.

While asylum seekers crossing from Libya to Italy hit record highs this year, arrivals in Malta stopped. Italy started accepting all migrants. Although this raised suspicions that Malta is returning the favour in some way, the Maltese government has always denied any formal deal.

Asked about the matter last April, Dr Muscat insisted there was no such agreement. He said: “Rome understood our limitations and we have understood theirs. We are now cooperating in a more meaningful manner.”

Dr Muscat met Mr Renzi’s predecessor, Enrico Letta, various times soon after he became Prime Minister in March 2013.

In November 2013, Mr Letta and Dr Muscat announced that the two countries were heading towards a deal on joint oil exploration in offshore areas long claimed by both countries.

Although Mr Letta had suggested that a formal agreement would be signed by the end of 2013, no agreement has been announced since.

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