The European Commission finds nothing wrong with Libya taking back illegal immigrants rescued on the high seas by Malta and Italy.
In the first unambiguous statement supporting the practice, the new Director General for Migration, Stefano Manservisi, defended the bilateral agreement which Italy signed with Libya in 2009 and which saw the North African state take back most of the migrants recued in the Mediterranean.
The so-called push-back policy has come under fire from humanitarian organisations including the UN refugee agency UNHCR, which point to Libya’s human rights record and the fact it is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention, a human rights treaty which guarantees the rights of asylum seekers.
Mr Manservisi argued that Libya was a signatory to the 1969 Addis Ababa Convention governing aspects of refugee problems in Africa, which binds Libya to principles which he said were similar to those of the UN convention, including cooperation with UNHCR.
His comments, however, come a few months after Libya, a country faced with a numerous reports of human rights abuses, shut down the UN refugee office in Tripoli.
Mr Manservisi insisted that Italy’s cooperation with Libya on illegal immigration was giving positive results, adding that “there is nothing which goes against EU laws in the bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya.
“Although the Commission prefers a European rather than a bilateral agreement, this bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya had proved to be efficient because illegal migration had been stopped,” he said.
“The Commission had been notified with the agreement and it found it to be perfectly in conformity with EU law.”
He was speaking during a special session of the Civil Liberties Committee of the European Parliament (EP) held on the request of the Socialist, Communist and Green Groups, to discuss reports that Libya would repatriate some 400 Eritreans to their homeland after they were sent back by Italy.
Mr Manservisi reassured the committee that Libya had agreed not to repatriate any of the Eritreans in question.
Malta has been an indirect beneficiary of the bilateral agreement. Since the deal’s entrance into force last year, illegal immigrant landings have almost completely stopped and so far this year, a single group of 27 illegal immigrants has reached Malta.
Intervening in the debate, Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil, who is also the European People’s Party’s spokesman on migration issues, denounced the hypocrisy being shown on immigration by those who criticised action against illegal immigration but then remained silent on who should carry the responsibility for them.
He also defended Italy’s agreement, pointing out that it had so far proved to be the only effective measure to counter irregular immigration.
Dr Busuttil cautioned against hypocrisy, into whose trap some risked falling by criticising the bilateral agreement but remaining silent when it came to responsibility sharing.
“Those who criticise these agreements have no reply when we ask them who is going to shoulder the responsibility to take them. They want migrants to freely cross into Europe but then expect the southern countries like Spain, Italy, Greece and Malta to take them. This is not an option,” Dr Busuttil told his fellow MEPs.
The EU has been trying to discuss a framework cooperation agreement with Libya for several years, including the issue of illegal migration.
However, discussions with Tripoli have been very slow. To this end, Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom will be paying an official visit to Tripoli in October.
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