Malta was today selected to host the new European Commission European Asylum Support Office (EASO) - the first EU agency to be based here.

The Office is being set up in terms of an EU decision taken last February following the signing of the Immigration and Asylum Pact.

Today's decision was taken by the EU Home Affairs Council where Malta was represented by Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Malta's representative to the EU, Richard Cachia Caruana.

Malta had lobbied intensively to host the agency and had gone into today's meeting with high hopes of achieving its aims. The other countries vying to host the Office, Cyprus and Bulgaria, withdrew from the contest and the final decision was unanimous.

The Office will have an estimated start-up budget for 2010 of €5,250,000. The total indicative budget for the 2010-2013 period amounts to €40,250,000.

Once operational, it is estimated that the Agency will have a minimum staff of 60 which will rise to 100-120 by 2013, including asylum support teams.

Malta has proposed to house the Asylum Office in the complex used by the Malta Maritime Authority in Marsa.

The total office area offered for the Asylum Office is of 2,400 square metres spread over three floors.

Malta has also offered to sponsor the use of the Mediterranean Conference Centre for major meetings of the Asylum Office.

ROLE OF THE ASYLUM OFFICE

The purpose of the Asylum Office will be to facilitate the exchange of information, analyses and experience among Member States, and develop practical cooperation between the administrations in charge of examining asylum applications.

It will also help to improve the implementation of the Common European Asylum System and strengthen practical cooperation among Member States on asylum.

The Office will provide operational support to Member States which are subject to strong pressure on their asylum systems, including the coordination of asylum support teams made up of asylum experts.

It will provide scientific and technical assistance for Community policy-making and legislation in all areas having a direct or indirect impact on asylum.

The EASO is to develop training for members of all national administrations, courts, tribunals and national services responsible for asylum matters in the Member States.

Today's decision came at the end of strong lobbying by Malta using the theme Building Bridges on Asylum.

Malta's efforts to bring the Office to Malta were spearheaded by Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Foreign Minister Tonio Borg.

A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry thanked Malta's embassies for their work.

This was the second time that Malta had sought to host an EU agency, the other having been Frontex. That bid was lost to Poland.

PRIME MINISTER'S REACTION

The Prime Minister described the EASO decision as a major achievement for Malta: “Thanks to all those who were involved in promoting and negotiating Malta’s case. This is undoubtedly another remarkable achievment in Malta’s short history as a European Union Member State. Our efforts however must not stop here. It is now important to look ahead to setting up the Asylum Office in the shortest time possible so that it can start carrying out its functions which are of utmost importance to the country and the EU as a whole.”

Dr Mifsud Bonnici in comments said the setting up of the Office in Malta had been a priority for the Maltese government.

"The Office was a priority for us because it offers logistical support and functional assistance to countries which are facing the brunt of illegal immigration.

"EASO's strategic location in Malta will help in decreasing the pressures that illegal immigration is exerting on our country because it will bring more logic and humanity in separating those who deserve international protection from the persons who don't qualify for such assistance. Furthermore it will add a dimension of uniformity in the way that this process is carried out across all members states," the minister added.

Foreign Minister Tonio Borg said that since 2004, Malta is the fourth Member State, following Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary, to win a bid to host an EU agency or body.

"The Maltese Government made a huge effort in driving forward Malta’s bid to host the EASO and this effort has paid off in one of the quickest agency decisions of recent years. Besides the prestige of hosting such an important agency, and the economic benefits that this will bring to the country, EASO will also deliver tangible results to overburdened Member States in the area of asylum.”

Ambassador Richard Cachia Caruana, coordinator of the Malta bid, gave the following comment: “I am obviously extremely pleased at the result. It is always a great feeling when a lobbying campaign successfully comes to fruition. We faced tough competition, particularly from Cyprus, but ultimately we were able to persuade Member States to support Malta’s bid. My thanks go to all those who played a part in this success.”