The EU will not be conducting patrols against illegal immigration in this part of the Mediterranean this year after Malta decided, for the second year running, there was no need for them.

Sources close to Frontex said Malta had informed the EU border agency the problem of illegal immigration had so far been contained following an agreement of joint patrols between Italy and Libya.

The decision was confirmed by a government spokesman.

This is the second consecutive year Malta has decided not to commit resources to a Frontex mission in the sea between Sicily, Malta and Libya. Following four years of participation, during which illegal immigration reached a peak, the island last year pulled out at the eleventh hour from a planned mission code-named Nautilus. Without Malta, which had been hosting the mission since 2008, there was no reason to hold it.

The island had given the same reason for opting out last year: the low number of illegal immigrants landing on the island. However, many had interpreted the pull-out as a snub following new guidelines approved by the EU Council and the European Parliament – against Malta’s wishes – providing for all illegal immigrants found during such missions to be taken to the host country.

In 2008, Malta recorded the biggest influx of illegal immigrants, a total of 2,775. The following year, the number dropped by nearly half to 1,475. Arrivals last year were a mere 47.

“It is evident who really holds the key to Malta’s illegal immigration problems,” a Commission official said, referring to Libya. “Since the start of joint patrol operations between Libya and Italy and more control by the Libyan authorities on the issue, the problem for Malta, Lampedusa and southern Italy has practically stopped.”

The EU is trying to negotiate a framework agreement with Tripoli to establish a free trade area that will also cater for more collaboration on the illegal immigration front. However, as is typical of talks with Libya, they are moving at a snail’s pace. A meeting planned in Brussels between the European Home Affairs Commissioner and Libya’s minister responsible for European relations has already been postponed twice since the beginning of the year.

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi last year made a surprise request insisting the EU pay Tripoli €5 billion in order to avoid being invaded by “poor African blacks”. Although the Commission made it clear there would be no negotiation on such a sum, it is ready to discuss helping Libya guard its borders more effectively to prevent migration from other African states.

While not hosting the mission this year, Malta is taking part in others run by Frontex as a sign of solidarity, such as helping Greece to patrol its borders with Turkey.

Malta benefits from joint repatriation flights organised by Frontex. Only last week, five Nigerian illegal immigrants who had been stuck on the island for years returned to their country on such a flight.

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