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Italy Cracks Down on Illegal Immigration

May 8, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

Rescued migrants are seen at an Italian coast guard boat while arriving at the port of Tripoli

Italy returned more than 200 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean Sea to Libya on Thursday, defying the United Nations refugee agency but claiming a major victory in its crackdown on illegal immigration.

The 227 migrants were brought back to Tripoli aboard two coast guard boats and a border police boat without having set foot on Italian soil, customs and border police Cmdr. Francesco Maugeri said from the Sicilian island of Lampedusa.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni called the operation a historic "turning point" in Italy's crackdown on illegal immigration, made possible because of an agreement signed with Libya, from where the migrants boat embarked.

The agreement allows Italy to send back migrants who leave from Libyan coasts and are intercepted before reaching Italian shores, the ministry said in a statement.

"This is the model that European countries should adopt toward coastal countries," Maroni said in a statement.

Tens of thousands of migrants leave Africa each year, some passing through Italy, others through Spain or other Mediterranean countries. In many cases, the migrants try to enter Italy's long, largely unpatrolled coastline and head to northern Europe in search of jobs or to join family members already living there.

On Wednesday, Italy and the island nation of Malta had appeared headed for their latest standoff over which nation should take in the migrants.

Authorities in Sicily received two calls early Wednesday from satellite phones aboard the smugglers' vessels but relayed the pleas for help to Malta. The Maltese then contacted the closest ship, an Italian tanker.

Overnight, with the migrants still in the water, Italy persuaded Libya to take the migrants back, in line with the February agreement, which also calls for joint patrols and for Italy to train Libyan coast guardsmen and provide patrol boats.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees expressed "deep concern" over the fate of the migrants, saying they were sent back "without proper assessment of their possible protection needs."

"The incident marks a significant shift in policies by the Italian government and is a source of very serious concern," the agency said in a statement. "UNHCR deeply regrets the lack of transparency which surrounded the event."

UNHCR noted in a statement that last year an estimated 75 percent of sea arrivals in Italy applied for asylum and 50 percent of them were "granted some form of protection."

Amnesty International also condemned Italy for sending the migrants back without interviewing them. It said both Italy and Malta breached their international obligations by doing so.

Maroni denied Italy had breached international law, saying Italy merely applied the principal of turning back a boat before it ever reached the Italian border. Libya, he added, had plenty of organizations that could assess the migrants' need for protection.

"This perfectly conforms, in our evaluation, to all international treaties," Maroni said.

Last month, a similar scenario triggered a four-day standoff between Italy and Malta after a Turkish ship rescued 140 migrants off Lampedusa. Malta had insisted the ship take those migrants to Lampedusa because that was the nearest port, while Italy contended Malta should accept them because the ship was in Malta's search and rescue area.

Eventually Italy took the migrants in for humanitarian reasons.

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