The holiday island of Malta is in the grip of an accidental tragedy: it is directly in the path of a growing and potentially vast flow of asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa to southern Europe.
Its proximity to Libya, 180 miles to the south, threatens the identity and culture of the islanders. Thousands of refugees have made the crossing in recent months.
Libya has said that there are 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans on its territory and many have their sights set on Europe.
Many asylum seekers are fleeing persecution in Darfur and Somalia and unknown numbers drown as they cross the Mediterranean.
The invasion of Malta is accidental: the boats are heading for the Italian islands of Lampedusa and Sicily, which offer direct access to the rest of Italy. But many of them run out of fuel or are hit by bad weather and seek a haven in Malta instead. Boats have reached the island almost every night this summer.
Under European Union law, asylum seekers must stay in the European country they first arrive in. Although Malta is no bigger than the Isle of Wight, it is a sovereign member of the EU, so anyone who lands is stuck there.
Malta joined the EU last year and is now sounding the alarm in the hope of receiving urgent assistance from the union. Government leaders and military chiefs told The Daily Telegraph that their island was being swamped.
Tonio Borg, the justice minister, said: “What was a problem has evolved into a crisis.”
Five years ago Malta received only 24 illegal migrants. This year’s total stands at more than 1,100 so far, with about 30 arrivals a night—the equivalent of 165,000 asylum seekers reaching Britain.
Some 4,000 asylum seekers have arrived since the crisis began in 2002. More than half are eventually granted refugee status or humanitarian leave to remain. Most of those refused asylum also stay on the island, in a limbo that is miserable for all involved. It is hard to prove where they are from; harder still to deport them to home countries that are sunk in anarchy.
Malta’s tradition of hospitality is being slowly poisoned by the crisis. New hard-line nationalist groups are springing up, while politicians from the two mainstream parties talk of “putting national interests before human rights”.
A recent opinion poll by the island’s Sunday Times found that 90 per cent of the population would not want an Arab, African or Jewish neighbour. In Balzan, a pretty village that is home to a church-run centre for refugees, a trio of old women enjoying the cool of the evening complained of “filthy” incomers taking over their piazza. Joe Mallia, a pensioner, denounced “negroes taking our jobs”.
Lawrence Gonzi, the prime minister, has urged the leaders of this pious, 95 per cent Roman Catholic island to moderate their language and remember the human beings involved.
He said: “I keep reminding everyone that this is a human crisis. We have to remain true to our values.”
But his government is taking a hard line, too. Adult asylum seekers are locked up on arrival for up to 12 months in grim former army barracks, police camps or converted warehouses.
The Daily Telegraph was refused permission to visit any detention centres, but Fr Paul Pace, a Jesuit priest who works in the camps, described conditions as worse than in any Maltese prison.
Support for the European Union has dropped sharply among the population, to 40 per cent in the latest polls.
Dolores Cristina, the minister for the family, said: “So far, EU membership has been a hindrance.”
Many unaccompanied minors in the boats had family in Milan or Rome, she said. “Malta would love to reunite them in Italy. Yet we are not allowed to do it because of EU directives. Before accession, there was a possibility for people to move on. We cannot live with this bottleneck here.”
Ministers pin their hopes on “EU burden-sharing”, a fervent hope that larger European states will volunteer to take in some of those granted asylum by Malta. But the reality is that the bottleneck in Malta is not a problem for other European governments. Taking in Malta’s refugees is also not a likely vote-winner.
Franco Frattini, the EU justice commissioner, recently cautioned Maltese ministers in private not to expect to resettle large numbers of refugees in the rest of the EU. He told them that such an initiative could be counter-productive, merely attracting bigger numbers of illegal immigrants to the island.
Britain, Malta’s former colonial ruler and close ally, has also sounded cool to the idea of taking in refugees, saying that the matter is “under consideration”.
In the medium term, Malta hopes that the lever of EU aid can be used to put pressure on African nations to take back deported citizens.
But for Mr Gonzi the solution is longer-term still and far harder: the transformation of the African continent.
“We have to give people a reason to live in their own country,” he said. “It is the only thing that will stop this migration.”