The Prime Minister yesterday welcomed rule changes that strengthen the EU border agency Frontex but warned that Malta must remain vigilant because illegal migration was only passing through a temporary lull brought about by the unrest in the southern Mediterranean.

“It could very well be that we will see more waves of illegal migration in the near future. It has not disappeared. We need to be vigilant and need Frontex and the EU to understand that this is a constant problem. Illegal migration has not stopped but just been temporarily suspended because of the unrest. These people are afraid to continue using Libya, through the desert, to come to Europe,” he said.

He was reacting to the European Parliament’s overwhelming approval of substantial amendments to the rules governing Frontex, giving it more powers to operate under its own steam and independently of the number of assets committed to it by individual member states.

The amendments were piloted by Maltese MEP Simon Busuttil, whom Dr Gonzi praised for the “fantastic job” he carried out.

He said it was “natural” that Malta knew what needed to be changed “... because we live through it and know what it is all about, and because we are close to the transit countries, particularly Libya.”

Frontex has conducted several anti-illegal immigration missions in local waters over the past few years. However, grave doubts have been expressed over its effectiveness as the agency had no real powers to turn back illegal immigrants intercepted on the high seas. The end result, according to critics, was that more immigrants were being brought to Maltese shores after being intercepted on the way to Italy. Frontex will from next year be able to procure its own equipment for its missions. Dr Gonzi called the rules “a very positive step for Malta” but expressed caution: “Everything depends on how things develop on the southern coast of the Mediterranean, particular in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The Frontex developments are important but I’m hoping that the situation will develop in a way that is in Malta’s best interest by becoming more stable and with economic growth being registered in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. “The unrest created a sort of curtain wall which could very well be temporary because the source of illegal immigration is not Tunisia, Egypt or Libya but Somalia, Eritrea...and the problems there are on the increase.”

Another key changed in the rules ensures human rights are safeguarded in all Frontex actions. The agency is now obliged to hire a “fundamental rights officer” and set up a “consultative forum on fundamental rights”, which will include EU agencies, the UNHCR and NGOs.

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