Italy was not re-inventing the wheel when it decided to deport all immigrants reaching its shores as from next week, a spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Minister in Malta said.
As a spell of good weather led to over 2,000 immigrants landing in the Italian island of Lampedusa over the past few days, the Italian government announced yesterday that, come Tuesday, it will send back illegal immigrants who arrive on its shores.
Reuters reported that 38 Egyptians will be the first group to be flown to Cairo under the new plan announced by Italy's right-wing government, which, since coming to power in May, has made the fight against illegal immigration a top priority.
Foreign Affairs Minister Tonio Borg could not be reached for a reaction but a spokesman for his ministry said Italy was not re-inventing the wheel. In fact, in the past, Malta had repatriated about 100 Egyptians as their mother country had agreed to take them back without problems.
The implication of the announcement by Italy is that expulsion may be fast-tracked. Italian Home Affairs Minister Roberto Maroni, a member of the anti-immigration Northern League, was reported saying: "I have arranged for the activation of a centre suitable for identification and expulsion".
A spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, said the move raised the risk of "generalised expulsions" and appealed to the Italian government to respect the rights of immigrants.
When asked about the lack of cooperation from Libya, the ministry spokesman said the government was trying to bring representatives from Malta, Italy and Libya round a table to discuss immigration.
Earlier this month a meeting between the foreign ministers of the three countries had to be postponed because the Libyan Foreign Minister had other diplomatic commitments.
When pressed on when the meeting will be held, the spokesman said the ministry was corresponding with its Libyan counterparts.
The debate over immigration was sparked again by the recent landings which also brought 103 men and 36 women, 10 of them claiming to be pregnant, after they were rescued at sea by the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM).
The immigrants, who were probably headed towards Italy, made contact with the Italian Coast Guard's station in Rome via a satellite phone on Sunday morning. The Italians informed the AFM, which intervened to help them as the engine of their 35-foot grey rubber dinghy stalled.
AFM Commander Carmel Vassallo said that although it is rare for Malta to receive immigrants in winter, it is not that unusual. In fact, the last landing was in November.
"What is strange is that they came in a dinghy at this time of the year when bad weather is expected," he said adding that dinghies have become more popular in the past two years probably because they are more available to traffickers.
This was an organised trip and probably the immigrants that landed in Malta, and who probably left Libya and were headed to Lampedusa, just accepted the window of good weather offered by the organisers without realising that the weather may turn nasty within hours, Brig. Vassallo said.
Army sources said these were not dinghies purchased off-the shelf but rather custom built.
Brig. Vassallo said that just because the immigrants arrived in a dinghy it did not necessarily mean they were released from a mother ship in the Mediterranean. Indications were that they had set off from Libya.
"This group seemed lost as lately the trend was to go to Lampedusa where they were probably headed. However, their engine stalled and they wanted to be rescued when they drifted 45 miles close to Malta, where they were plucked to safety by the AFM," he said.
The UNHCR representative in Malta, Neil Falzon, agreed that the immigrants' arrival in Malta was a "big mistake" as they were headed to Lampedusa.
"It is worrying that people undertake this horrible journey in this weather when chances of arrival are minimal. It goes to show the desperation of these people," Dr Falzon said.
Colonel Brian Gatt, in charge of the detention centres, said he was not surprised by Monday's arrivals given what was going on in Italy. Though Malta's detention centres were full at the moment they will manage. "Our motto is to improve, adapt and overcome and that's what we'll do," he said.
The 139 immigrants will be accommodated in tents until mobile homes that have been ordered are delivered, he said. So far, 2,704 immigrants have landed in Malta this year, the bulk of them in summer, making 2008 a record year.