Mystery shrouds the sudden drought in illegal immigrant arrivals, though observers believe that Libya is taking the problem more seriously than it did in the past.

Official figures show Malta has so far this year received the smallest number of immigrants since 2003.

Only two boats containing illegal immigrants have landed in Malta in the past four months and not one asylum seeker has arrived on the island this month - compared with 575 in June last year.

Rome-based UNHCR spokesperson Laura Boldrini could offer no explanation for the sudden drop:

"It's difficult to say what is going on, especially since the flow of immigrants in winter persisted. According to what was reported, immigration control is part of the Italy/Libya friendship agreement... It is difficult to establish whether this will last," she told The Sunday Times.

Analysts believe Libya has ordered a crackdown on human trafficking but the big question is what led to it and, more importantly, how long will it last.

There are suspicions that Italy and Libya have struck a secret deal worth billions in "reparation" over 20 years. British newspaper The Independent recently reported that Libya will get "a world-class autostrada" from one end of the country to the other and one of the conditions dictates Tripoli is to control the flow of immigrants towards Europe.

During a visit to Rome earlier this month, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi faced protests from students following an accord between the two countries to set up joint naval patrols to intercept immigrants. The deal states that immigrants intercepted at sea will be sent back to Libya without checking whether they have legitimate asylum claims.

Officials who spoke to The Sunday Times said the promised joint patrols between Italy and Libya have not started, and human trafficking appears to have been stemmed at source.

The arrival figures are even more surprising considering that the first two months of the year triggered alarm bells when four boats landed with over 700 illegal immigrants in Malta. The authorities feared trafficking patterns had changed and that African immigrants would start attempting their journeys on ships rather than small, rickety boats. As a result, Malta prepared for the worst in 2009.

Yet, since a boat of 227 immigrants landed in Malta on February 18, there have been just two more landings, one of which hit the headlines after an Italian patrol boat turned back a Maltese patrol boat containing rescued immigrants close to Lampedusa.

The numbers are drastically down in Lampedusa and Sicily as well (see tables below). The number of fatalities has also dropped - around 340 people are believed to have died in the Sicilian channel in the first four months of the year, down from 640 in the same period last year.

Salvatore Cancemi, captain of an Italian fishing boat, who defied the odds and bad weather and saved 300 immigrants from the sea, recently called Ms Boldrini from a satellite phone to say that immigrant crossings have "disappeared".

However, Ms Boldrini said: "When these immigrants cross the Mediterranean it's like Russian roulette. But experience has shown that desperate people will not stop trying to escape - instead they will take more dangerous routes."

When contacted, Armed Forces' commander Carmel Vassallo also said he could not explain what had happened.

"We are still going on with the Frontex patrol operations, but there is a drastic reduction. We are meeting no immigrants at sea."

He said there was a possibility that Libya and Italy were cooperating more on the management of immigration - and this could be having a positive impact.

He also shot down the accusation that the EU's Frontex patrols were intercepting more immigrants and returning them to Libya, but warned: "Irrespective of the patrols, some boats will always go through. Sometimes you will not even realise the immigrants have landed. It's impossible to contain them - so there seems to be an effort (in Libya)."

Though Italy and Malta have been afforded respite from illegal immigration, human rights groups are concerned about the fate of genuine asylum seekers.

Ms Boldrini hit out at the lack of transparency with the so-called push-backs, where those fleeing Africa by boat are being forced back to Libya, which means it is difficult for UNHCR to organise the assistance of these people upon arrival in Tripoli. Media reports said Italy transported back to Libya 72 immigrants who had been intercepted at sea on June 18.

"Sadly, Europe is becoming more inaccessible and there are governments that are increasingly considering externalising the right of asylum.

"The Italian government has greeted the stoppage of immigrants' flow but we don't know if this is good news especially since last year the vast majority of those landing in Malta or Italy were asylum seekers and most obtained some form of protection."

The UNHCR in Libya is not in a position to fully implement its mandate since Tripoli did not sign up to the Geneva Convention for Refugees. This means that the UNHCR is not given access to all detention camps. Libya does not have any asylum legislation and the UNHCR is not formally recognised.

Ms Boldrini said the UNHCR could cooperate with governments, but could not offer the protection which should be provided by the State.

Observers who spoke to The Sunday Times suspect the halt to the immigration flow may only be temporary, and fear that Libya may relax its position once again.

hgrech@timesofmalta.com

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