The European Union's patrols aimed at controlling the flow of illegal immigration in the central Mediterranean will resume in April and end in October.

The mission this year would focus on returning illegal immigrants to their country of origin from member states and EU countries would be encouraged to contribute, the head of the EU's border control agency, which coordinates the mission, said yesterday.

Ilkka Laitenen, head of Frontex, was briefing the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament.

This year's mission will change its name from Nautilus, used for the last four years, to Chronos.

Mr Laitenen did not give any specific details on the effectiveness of last year's mission conducted mainly by the Armed Forces of Malta and a few other member states but said it was undeniable that the number of illegal immigrants crossing over to Malta and Italy from Libya was on the decline.

According to figures given by Frontex, only 3,300 illegal immigrants reached Malta and Lampedusa last year, less than half the number registered in the previous year.

In the case of Malta, there were 2,775 arrivals in 2008 and 1,475 in 2009.

Intervening during the debate, Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil criticised the lack of participation by other EU member states in last year's Frontex-led mission and asked Mr Laitenen whether it was high time that the EU obliged member states to take part and show solidarity.

Mr Laitenen said that, although he would not advise a legally-binding obligation, he did understand that the matter continued to be a problem and he committed himself to take measures to encourage more member states to come on board, notably by providing bigger financial incentives.

Despite efforts by both the European Commission and Frontex last year, the participation of other member states was minimal. Only Germany made a significant contribution by dispatching two helicopters and Luxembourg sent a small plane.

Other member states, particularly Italy, which, like Malta, receives many illegal immigrants from North Africa, did not furnish any resources. France, which also used to take part, declined last year describing the missions as a "total failure".

Mr Laitinen said the emphasis of his agency this year would be to return to their country of origin illegal immigrants in member states. Frontex would be pushing for more such returns, adding that the financial resources devoted to such purpose would be nearly doubled from €5 million last year to over €9 million.

In the meeting, several MEPs, particularly from the Socialist and Green groups, quizzed Mr Laitenen on the human rights record of the agency and, in particular, on Italy's push-back initiative whereby illegal immigrants intercepted on the high-seas are returned to Libya.

Dismissing claims that Frontex was in any way involved in the Italian policy, Mr Laitinen said the push-back took place within the framework of a bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya and Frontex had no authority to scrutinise such matters.

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