EU Immigration: ‘Malta Is the Smallest State, and We Are Carrying a Burden That Is Much Bigger than Any Other Country’
Colin Freeman et al., Telegraph (London), July 21, 2013
Mohammed Abdi, an asylum seeker from Somalia, counts himself to have made two new sets of friends this month. One is the “generous” people of Malta, who took him and 102 other African migrants in after their boat got into difficulties as it trafficked them towards Europe from Libya.
The other is the European Court of Human Rights, which stopped Malta’s not-so-generous prime minister, Joseph Muscat, from flying them back to Libya after claiming the island could not cope with more illegal immigrants.
“It would have been wrong to send us back to Libya,” beamed Abdi, 30, who now lives in a dormitory in an immigration detention centre surrounded by 20 foot high barbed wire fences. “We are sorry for the people of Malta, who are very generous, but we do need help as conditions are terrible in my country.”
Perched on a tiny but strategic set of islands between Europe and Africa, the Maltese have long prided themselves on their ability to repel unwanted invaders. In the 1500s, their resident Knights of St John were the heroes of Europe after seeing off the Ottoman Turks, and in the Second World War, they won the George Cross for helping Britain to keep Hitler at bay.
Their latest efforts to turn back a foreign armada, however, are unlikely to win such plaudits. Or not from the European Union, anyway, which last week was embroiled in a bitter row with Mr Muscat’s government over its plans to return Mr Abdi and his ilk to Libya, from where they came in a people-smuggling boat 12 days ago.
The boat, which was picked up by the Maltese Coastguard, was the 14th to arrive this year alone, and came just a week after another one carrying 290 people. Altogether, 1,079 refugees have arrived in similar fashion in Malta this year alone, and 17,743 in the last decade.
But in the EU’s smallest state, which has just 400,000 people and is roughly the size of the Isle of Wight, that is a lot more than it might sound.
The equivalent in Britain would be 2,500,000 extra people – roughly the equivalent of two Birminghams – a point not lost on Mr Muscat, who last week accused Brussels of lecturing his country about human rights while doing nothing to share the burden.
“Right now we cannot cope with these numbers, they are unsustainable,” he told The Sunday Telegraph. “Malta is the smallest state in the EU, and we are carrying a burden that is much bigger than any other country.”
Mr Muscat, 39, who studied at Bristol University, was speaking during an official visit to Rome last week, shortly after the European Court of Human Rights had issued an interim order blocking any moves to fly the Somalis back to Libya.
Strasbourg’s judges backed claims by Maltese human rights groups and EU commissioners that Mr Muscat was violating EU law by not allowing them to make asylum claims first, and that the move was an illegal “push-back”.
“This is not push back, it is a message that we are not push-overs,” retorted Mr Muscat. He added that as a contributor to the EU bailouts of its southern European neighbours, Malta should expect the EU to offer something in return. “People say solidarity, solidarity, but then nothing happens.”
Whether Mr Muscat, whose centre-Left Labour Party resents the charges of xenophobia that have been thrown at it, really intended to carry out the “push back” is a matter of debate.
Some suspect it was just a stunt to force Brussels to give practical help rather than high-handed lectures. As Mr Muscat himself puts it: “We have stamped our feet to say look guys, don’t leave us alone.”
But either way, the row has highlighted how Malta – and nearby Italy – is struggling to reconcile their obligations as EU states with their unsought role as the doormat for illegal migrants from Africa seeking entry to Europe.
As Europe’s most southerly nation – it lies level with Tunisia – Malta’s immigration problems are not just about numbers. While Britain frets about an influx of educated, English-speaking Eastern Europeans, Malta contends mainly with arrivals from the poorest and most war-torn parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Most arrive largely destitute, having blown most of their savings on an €700 people’s smuggler’s fee and the gruelling 15-day trip by truck and foot across the Sahara. And although a certain resourcefulness is needed to make that journey in first place, many have little schooling and speak neither Maltese or English, the island’s second language.
Hence the groups of Africans who gather at certain road junctions around the capital, Valletta, hoping for labouring work from passing builder and hoteliers. It can be a long wait.
“I have been here a month, and have found nothing,” said Goodluck Ajeh, 25, a footballer originally from Nigeria. “I will take any job – right now I am just looking for my daily bread.”
Unusually for an EU country, Malta makes all illegal immigrants stay in secure detention centres while their asylum claims are processed, a process that can take up to 18 months. But when that time expires, few in practice are sent back. Nearly 90 per cent are from Somalia and Eritrea, both countries deemed too dangerous for deportation to.
Libya is likewise deemed off-limits, because of a wave of reprisals carried out against black Africans for their role in fighting as mercenaries for Colonel Gaddafi in Libya’s civil war.
Instead, they end up languishing in large, government-run hostels and overcrowded rented homes, where they stand out conspicuously. While the locals pride themselves on being a tolerant, cosmopolitan people – large numbers of Maltese live abroad as immigrants themselves – there are tensions in areas like Marsa, a shipyard town of 6,000.
“For a place our size to be invaded by about 1,000 immigrants in the last six or seven years is a big shock,” said Marsa’s Labour mayor, Francis Debona, 53. “It’s not because they are black, it’s just a matter of suddenly having another big population with cultures and practices that are very different to our own.
“It’s all very for the European Court to say these people can’t be sent back, but their judges don’t live around here, do they?”
A straw poll by The Sunday Telegraph revealed a mixture of views around Marsa. Some insisted the migrants caused no particular trouble, a view backed by Andrew Seychell, Malta’s senior immigration policeman, who says there is no sign of an associated crime wave. Others, though, accused them of unclean habits and blamed them for a drop in house prices.
“Every night you see them around here, drinking and making a mess,” said Raymond Zammit, 51, pointing to stains on the pavement near his tyre business which he said were caused variously by beer, wine and urine.
“The kids feel afraid to play in the parks,” added Gerard Camelleri, 59. “In another few years, Malta is going to be African.”
In fact, few African immigrants seek to put down roots down in Malta, preferring instead to head to mainland Europe, where job prospects are better, and where they can legally go under the Schengen arrangements.
But that creates another problem. The rules insist they must return to the country where they first claimed asylum within three months, and while the majority simply overstay, every year hundreds are caught and forcibly returned to Malta from other Schengen countries.
As such, few the estimated 5,000 currently resident in Malta have any real interest in settling, and therefore little incentive to integrate.
“Some will try five times a year to leave Malta for somewhere better,” said one refugee worker. “Then, every time they are sent back, they start at square one again.”
This weekend, it seemed that Mr Muscat’s outburst had achhieved some of the desired effect. Having ticked Malta off over the “push-back” talk, the European home affairs commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, offered to make extra emergency funds available and also pledged to do more to get other EU states to take some of Malta’s immigrants.
A transfer scheme is already in place, but over the past decade other European nations have taken only 700 of Malta’s arrivals, with the US taking 1,300.
At the same time, the government embarked on a public relations damage-limitation exercise, attempting to allay concerns about asylum seekers’ treatment with a visit to the detention centre where the Somalis were being held.
Mr Abdi, the Somali who had dodged deportation, told The Sunday Telegraph he was “very happy with the conditions, and very happy to be here”.
Whether his cheer will survive a stay in the detention centre and a spell of roadside job seeking is, however, another matter.
And likewise, if as expected more boats continue to arrive in Mr Abdi’s wake, it may no longer just be Mr Muscat stamping his feet.