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Did Malta & Italy Sign an Oil-for-Migrants Deal? Italian MEP Wants Answers

© AFP 2023 / Matthew MirabelliMigrants arrive on a boat of the Armed Forces of Malta after a rescue operation on March 20, 2014 in Hay Wharf, Valletta.
Migrants arrive on a boat of the Armed Forces of Malta after a rescue operation on March 20, 2014 in Hay Wharf, Valletta. - Sputnik International
Italian lawmaker in the European Parliament Elisabetta Gardini has called on the European Commission to reveal whether it is aware of a secret deal between Italy and Malta to trade migrants for oil drilling rights.

Her intervention comes after Maltese opposition leader Simon Busuttil claimed that Malta and Italy had reached a secret agreement under which Malta would surrender oil exploration rights in an offshore area disputed with Italy, while Italy would return the favor by picking up Malta's share of migrant rescues at sea.

The deal was denied by the Commission in March, however, rumors persist because of the sudden fall in the number of migrants turning up in Malta. Gardini asked:

"How does the Commission explain the inactivity of the Maltese navy in recent months, which is demonstrated by the number of people arriving on the island?"

According to the Maltese Independent the Maritime Squadron of the Armed Forces of Malta has rescued 93 migrants since last January, when its search and rescue area covers 250,000 km² between Sicily and Libya. Over the same period, Italy has had a total of 121,139 migrants arriving on its shores.

Territorial Waters

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission - Sputnik International
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There has been a history of disputes between Malta and Italy over territorial waters. Malta is believed to have a potential 260 million barrels. However, Italy and Malta have been in dispute over offshore exploration zones as well as over migrant rescue zones.

According to OilPrice.com, the crux of the issue is a 2012 law passed by Italy that essentially doubled Italy's continental shelf southeastwards of Sicily and towards the Libyan coast. Malta balked because this cut into maritime territory it claims. In late 2015, however, Malta and Italy reached an informal agreement to suspend exploratory oil drilling in this area.

The migrant matter came to a head in 2013, in what became known as the Lampedusa tragedy in which 270 migrants died, when it was alleged the Italian authorities waited for a migrant boat to stray into Maltese waters to avoid rescuing those on the vessel.

Busuttil, from the Maltese Nationalist Party accused the Maltese government late last year of allowing the Italian government to drill for oil in Maltese waters in a dubious oil-for-migrants swap. Italian newspaper, Il Giornale, also claimed that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had agreed to the deal with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

In September, 2015, Maltese Interior Minister Carmelo Abela said that Malta had an informal agreement with Italy take on irregular migrants from Malta, but the minister later altered that statement to a situation of "close collaboration" between Italy and Malta, according to an Italian media report.

In March, European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said: "The Commission is not aware of any bilateral agreement between the Maltese and Italian authorities concerning Search and Rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea."

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