When temperatures warm, the Mediterranean Sea becomes rife with boatloads of immigrants, who largely hail from North Africa, seeking refuge and political asylum in Europe. For years, Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus have attracted the largest numbers, thus bearing the brunt of illegal immigration problems.
Following a string of disagreements with Malta over whose has responsibility for rescuing immigrants stranded at sea, Italy introduced a new policy of immediately deporting would-be immigrants intercepted at sea, without allowing them to disembark or seek refugee status. Under the new policy, which was signed by Interior minister Roberto Maroni on May 6, Italy and Libya will implement a landmark accord by which migrants rescued in international waters are taken back to Libya where humanitarian organizations will then vet their asylum claims. The accord includes joint patrols of Libya’s shores. Already on May 10, Italy returned 240 would-be immigrants to Libya.
The plan, however, has sparked controversy among human rights and refuge groups worldwide. The Vatican has also voiced concern over possible human rights violations.
The United Nations refugee agency expressed ‘serious concern’ over Italy’s new policy, arguing that it undermines access to asylum in the European Union and may violate international law if refugees are returned against their will to a country where they could face personal, religious or political persecution.
Maroni plans to visit Libya along with Malta’s Interior minister, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, and European Justice commissioner Jacques Barrot. Meanwhile, the European Commission says it is working with Italy and Malta and constantly monitoring the situation. ‘The first priority is prevent-ing human lives being lost at sea,’ said Barrot’s spokesman.