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James Burgess

James Burgess

James Burgess studied Business Management at the University of Nottingham. He has worked in property development, chartered surveying, marketing, law, and accounts. He has also…

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Did Italy And Malta Actually Agree To Swap Oil Rights For Refugees?

Did Italy And Malta Actually Agree To Swap Oil Rights For Refugees?

As the Syrian refugee crisis reaches a critical impasse, both in terms of European security and refugee human rights, Brussels has found itself having to deny accusations of a secret pact between Malta and Italy to swap refugees for oil exploration rights.

The Maltese opposition leader has claimed that Malta and Italy cut a secret deal in 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.

In late March, the European Commission was forced to respond to the accusations as the Syrian refugee crisis has hit a fever pitch, denying the accusations; but it’s a complicated issue.

Maltese opposition leader Simon Busuttil of the Nationalist Party, and a member of the European Parliament until 2013, 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. Related: The World’s First 24/7 Solar Power Plant

His accusations were boosted by the reporting of an Italian newspaper, Il Giornale, which claimed that Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had agreed to the deal with Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat.

Last September, Maltese Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela stated 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 the Italian media report.

While Malta has admitted to close collaboration, the country’s officials maintain that there is no agreement concerning migrants or linking migrants to oil exploration.

Now the European Commission has had to step up to the plate.

Malta is the European Union member country that is closest to the Libyan coast. And with that in mind, Italian centre-right lawmaker Elisabetta Gardini has recently asked the European Commission to explain why there are such low migrant arrival numbers in Malta.

Her question was poignant. Related: Why Britain’s Bespoke Nuclear Program Won’t Work

Since 2015, out of the 142,000 people who fled their homes bound for Europe, leaving from the North-African coast, only around a 100 arrived in Malta. It’s an odd situation during this heightened refugee crisis.

In 2013, Maltese officials registered 2,008 arrivals. During the same period, Italy accepted some 150,000 refugees. The argument that there was no deal would suggest that refugees simply have no desire to try for Malta.

Late last month, the European Commission finally replied to the allegations, with European Commissioner for Home Affairs and Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos saying that it was “not aware of any such bilateral agreement… between the Maltese and Italian authorities concerning Search and Rescue (SAR) operations in the Mediterranean Sea.”

“Not aware” certainly does not put this issue to rest.

That said, as reported by the Independent, the Commission noted that coincidentally the area of oil exploration in question overlaps with the migrant rescue areas. Related: Iran’s Masterplan To Ramp Up Energy Exports

While not being aware of any agreement, the Commission said that if there was an agreement, it would be in line with normal burden-sharing.

“When it comes to the emergency relocation mechanism, the Commission sees it as establishing concrete measures of solidarity and contributing to the fair sharing of responsibilities between member states, in line with Article 80 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the EU,” according to the Commission.


What’s at stake here in terms of the oil play? Quite a lot, potentially. According to an independent review, Malta has a potential 260 million barrels. But Malta and Italy have been locked in dispute over offshore exploration zones as well as over what their migrant rescue zones are.

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, Malta and Italy reached an informal agreement to suspend exploratory oil drilling in this area.

Perhaps one open-ended question is this: With an EU-Turkey deal in place that will see Turkey (in return for some EU favors and a bunch of financial aid) take back refugees landing in Greece, it will essentially cut off the Aegean Sea human smuggling route. It might mean a renewed interest in the Libya route. And if Malta has traded off its rescue area, it will mean problems for Italy, which would have to intercept them all.

By James Burgess for Oilprice.com

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  • Tony on April 06 2016 said:
    One really wonders why some media take the Opposition leader in Malta seriously. He has been trying to put spokes in the current administration since losing the 2013 general election. Every day he embarks on some allegation but has never had the guts to substantiate his allegations. This was another of his crazy ideas.

    Besides, what if there truly was some kind of agreement for Italy to take the refugees from Malta. The island is much too small and cannot afford the burden. One other thing. What deal about oil drilling? Malta has never been near to discovering oil despite drilling since the mid fiftees.
  • BDub on April 06 2016 said:
    Technically Malta is NOT the closest EU member State to the Libiyan coast. Don't most North African migrants make for Lampedusa or Pantelleria, both of which are much closer to Libya than Malta, and both Italian provinces. That probably goes some distance towards explaining the differences in numbers.
  • Joseph M. Cachia on July 18 2017 said:
    “It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority.”
    Benjamin Franklin

    It is truly pitiful to note that we have come to accept everything at face value and that nothing matters anymore and all is swept under the carpet and forgotten. This including the lack of information owed to the electorate which promise had primarily voted politicians to power.

    Emotional discourses have been growing stronger as the ability of educated people to differentiate fact from rhetoric declines and most, supposedly free and open-minded folks, turn a blind eye to the administration's illegal and unconstitutional doings.

    “You are with us or against us” is a perfect catchword to elicit a restricting, or worse, a blindfolded view of reality.

    It is undeniable that the lack of alternative information to government propaganda is very limited and clearly fading away. Not only surprising but also alarming and foreboding is the notion that to know about one's own country and homeland one has to learn from foreign sources.

    Of course, it is not unusual to learn of doubtful and shady dealings from local media but only after these had been divulged by foreign original sources.

    Recent events have clearly shown that the question is whether this political secrecy is of any of the kinds that can be called legitimate. I don't believe so!

    Sometime after the MLP election, it was reported that PM Muscat had discussed the joint activity of oil exploration in the Mediterranean with Italian Premier Letta. What was agreed? Muscat had, at that time, expressed his belief that significant results had been achieved and formal agreement would follow in the next months. What had been achieved? What was the 'informal agreement' implied by Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela? And is the following the result of that agreement? And still more, is the original source of the evidence also being kept hidden from us?

    Report: Nov. 2013: Italy, Malta agree on oil exploration, immigration
    Updated: Sept. 2015: Media in Italy questioning 'secret Malta migrant deal'

    The Italian paper 'Il Giornale' reported that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi had agreed with Joseph Muscat to exchange irregular migrants for oil exploration rights to the south of Italy.

    It's an undeniable fact that mostly throughout last year we had hardly seen any arrivals of clandestine immigrants. Malta, which had been at the forefront of boat migrant crisis for years, has received just 90 asylum seekers in 2015. Thousands of migrants rescued off Libya have instead been transported to Italy. Is there any legitimate explanation for this or is it just a monumental coincidence? I hold to the age-old maxim: 'Where there is smoke, there is fire'. Don't the electorate deserve an explanation to set our minds at rest? Mr. Prime Minister, Malta 'belongs to all of us' and not to you only! Giving away anything which is not yours is not diplomacy.

    In consequence, our government continues to deny such dealings and reports. Of course, without any further elucidation or substantiation.

    "It is true that Malta seems to have been cocooned from the latest disruptions caused by refugees and immigrants coming over to Europe in their thousands from the Middle East and Africa. And that the Maltese people need to take a direct interest in the European refugee crisis as it could influence their future in a big way”, said PL MEP Dr. Alfred Sant. Quite right, but is that enough? Mustn’t the people be informed on what is going on and the potential repercussions on our country, Dr. Sant?

    It makes one wonder what our government is brewing as this lack of transparency reflects negatively on the whole PL cabinet.

    Hopefully, such reported dealings are not true, as otherwise our Prime Minister would have gone beyond the authority vested in him and disposed of the family silver which he was bound to safeguard. Wouldn't this amount to betrayal of the people's trust and an 'abuse of power'? In such an event, nothing less than the resignation of the Prime Minister would justify proper measure!

    If the government wasn't able to solve the immigrants' problem, what right did it have to barter Maltese property in exchange? The priorities o

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