An Island Engulfed by Migrants

Mary Jordan, Washington Post, June 4, 2006

VALLETTA, Malta—Elegant white cruise ships slide into a perfect Mediterranean harbor, dropping hundreds of sun-blushed tourists to wander this former British colony’s narrow alleyways dotted with pubs and classic red English telephone booths. But just beyond these postcard-perfect scenes, an unwanted flotilla of rickety fishing boats carrying desperate Africans is arriving, too.

“See, there’s one of them now,” said Jesmond Saliba, pointing to an African man in jeans and sandals ambling along streets alive with white tourists.

Saliba, 34, drives a horse-drawn taxi, as his father did. For generations in his family, more visitors meant more money. But Saliba feels differently about the thousands of destitute Africans arriving here needing food, housing and medicine. “We don’t have enough jobs for them, and it means more taxes for us,” Saliba said. “This island is too small for them.”

Malta suddenly finds itself on the leading edge of an increasingly emotional debate over how much immigration Europe can tolerate. About twice the size of the District of Columbia, it sits like a tiny sentry off southern Europe, 60 miles south of Sicily, looking across the sea at 2,000 miles of North African coast. In the past four years, more than 5,000 African immigrants have come ashore here, most often making the 200-mile crossing from Libya in open fishing boats.

Nearly all were aiming for Italy and mainland Europe. But when their skiffs foundered or ran out of gas, they found themselves in a nation of just 400,000 people, more densely populated than Bangladesh, where families have known each other for generations and people from the next village are considered outsiders.

“There is a feeling of ‘My God, we are being invaded!’ “ said Katrine Camilleri, a lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service, which aids the boat people. “It’s becoming more and more acceptable for people to openly say, ‘We don’t want them.’”

The same holds on the continent. Hard-line anti-immigration political parties have made dramatic electoral gains in Denmark, Norway and Britain. Mainstream political parties are tilting more and more in that direction.

Countries that until recently had barely any foreigners, such as Ireland, are now taking in large numbers of newcomers of different races and religions. Last month, 40 Afghans staged a hunger strike inside a Dublin cathedral to press their demand for political asylum.

More than 9,000 Africans, meanwhile, have reached Spain’s Canary Islands by boat this year, turning that tourist destination into another immigration crisis point. The European Union’s border patrol agency said last week that it was planning to send air and sea patrols to the Canary Islands, Malta and other hot spots.

“The whole of Europe is putting up the shutters,” said Martin Scicluna, an adviser to Malta’s justice minister. Maltese officials are pleading with other European nations to take custody of some of the boat people who arrive here. So far, the Netherlands has taken 40; Germany has pledged to take a similar number.

Many in Malta, an overwhelmingly white, Catholic nation, are angry about the growing numbers of black, mostly Muslim newcomers.

“We don’t want a multicultural society,” said Martin Degiorgio, a leader of the Republican National Alliance, an anti-immigrant group formed last year. “Haven’t you seen the problems it has brought to France and Britain?”

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