The EU's increased patrols off Malta and Lampedusa might be one of the main reasons why the two islands received a record number of illegal immigrants, according to the Frontex chief.
The anti-immigration patrols being carried out in the centre of the Mediterranean are not achieving the desired results, Illka Laitinen, the executive director of the EU's Border Control Agency, has admitted.
Mr Laitinen was speaking in Brussels about the immigration situation in the Mediterranean which he described as "increasingly alarming".
"Unfortunately, increased EU patrols in the Mediterranean are failing to prevent an increase in clandestine migrants reaching Italy, Malta and Greece by sea," he said.
According to the Frontex chief, arrivals on the Italian island of Lampedusa increased by 190 per cent in the first six months of 2008, compared with the same period last year. Although Malta has not experienced the same levels as its Italian counterpart, this year it still received a record number of illegal immigrants, registering an increase so far of 32 per cent on the whole of 2007.
The Libyan authorities' refusal to stem the flow of departures from their country remains the main reasons for illegal immigrant crossings, but Mr Laitinen said the presence of more patrols by the EU in the area might also be a contributory factor.
"This is the saddest part of the story. We have an increased level of operational activities which might be serving as a pull factor for traffickers."
According to Mr Laitinen, traffickers are forcing immigrants to sink the boats they are sailing on close to the coasts of Malta and Lampedusa so that they will be saved by Frontex vessels and taken ashore.
Nicknamed Nautilus III, the patrols are a joint EU mission coordinated by Frontex on the central Mediterranean route surveying the stretch of sea between Sicily, Malta and Libya against migrant trafficking. This is the third year that the EU is coordinating these patrols with the contribution of the Armed Forces of Malta, Italy, France, Germany and Greece and is costing the EU €8 million.
Statistics obtained by The Sunday Times from Frontex show that since the start of this year's operation in May, 12,641 illegal immigrants arrived in Lampedusa and 2,192 landed in Malta. None of the immigrants intercepted by Frontex has been directed back as Libya does not accept any responsibility for the immigrants fleeing its coast. This, in fact, seems to be the main reason for the mission's failure.
A similar mission off the coasts of the Spanish Canary Islands is bearing fruit as both Senegal and Mauritania are cooperating and taking back the migrants leaving their shores to reach the EU.
While the number of arrivals in the Canary Islands this year is still high - 5,662 - another 4,180 illegal immigrants were turned back after being intercepted by Frontex vessels.
However, according to the Frontex chief, this success might also be having a negative effect on the central Mediterranean.
"Traffickers could be targeting Malta and Italy as an alternative to the Canary Islands. The number of clandestine immigrants reaching the Canaries has fallen considerably since 2006."
He added that "big-question marks" still hang over this theory, not least because there is no correlation of nationalities using the different routes.
The only certain positive effect which Nautilus III is leaving on Malta is its positive impact on the Armed Forces budget. Through this mission, the AFM recovers 80 per cent of the costs of its patrol missions off the coast of Malta. This year, the EU subvention is expected to amount to more than €1.1 million.
AFM sources told The Sunday Times that this is having a positive impact of the AFM's normally stretched finances.
"We still used to fork out this money before in order to carry out our patrols. At least the EU coffers are now covering many of the costs incurred by our patrol boats and planes."
This year's Frontex mission in Malta is expected to last until the end of October.