Managing the challenge of illegal migration in Malta

Over recent years, Malta has increasingly moved into the international spotlight as a frontline state for irregular migration from the African continent towards the EU. Since 2002, Malta has experienced a growing influx of migrants predominately from the horn of Africa, practically all of which have departed from the Libyan coast towards Europe. Even though, in absolute terms, the number of seaborne migrants landing on Malta has been rather modest, given the country’s small size and very high population density, the impact in proportional terms has been higher than in most if not all European countries.

Consequently, illegal immigration has become one of Malta’s top policy priorities, nationally as well as at the EU level, where Malta has been calling for burden-sharing mechanisms and support from other EU countries in coping with the growth in irregular immigration. Moreover, boat migration across the Mediterranean has also become an increasingly pressing humanitarian challenge: it is estimated that, over recent years, several hundred would-be immigrants have died every year in the Mediterranean trying to reach the EU from the south.

Total arrivals between 2002 and August 2008 equal 11,057. Relative to population size, this equates to around 1.5 million immigrants arriving in France or the UK, 2.2 million in Germany, and about 1.1 million in Spain. However, while on a per capita basis, Malta has thus experienced one, if not the largest, influx of undocumented immigrants among EU countries over recent years; it should also be noted that Malta’s total foreign-born population — estimated at around 2.7 percent — remains very small in European comparison. (Among EU countries, only Slovakia with 2.3 percent, and Poland with 1.8 percent, have smaller foreign-born populations, whereas in most western European countries, the foreign-born population ranges between seven and 15 percent). The challenge for Malta has thus not really been one of coping with a comparatively large immigrant population, but rather with a population of (irregular) immigrants which has increased dramatically over a very short period of time.

As in many other European countries, the growth in irregular immigration into Malta has been accompanied by a rise in anti-immigrant, racist movements and activities. Even though these have overall remained at a relatively low level, and one can thus not yet speak of a ’racist backlash’, the emergence of overtly xenophobic movements and parties has been a complete novelty in Malta’s political landscape. Moreover, and somewhat more worrying, there has been a rise in attacks against organizations and individuals working to protect the rights of immigrants, or against people denouncing racism. In 2006, for the first time, a number of violent acts were committed against the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta, and the houses of two journalists who had written articles condemning racism were also attacked.

A recent study on xenophobic attitudes among the Maltese population has also revealed some disturbing results. According to a survey conducted in 2005, 95 percent of respondents had no objections to having a European neighbour while an almost equally high number were unwilling to live next to Arabs (93 percent), Africans (90 percent) or Jews (89 percent). Moreover, more than 75 percent of respondents said they would not give shelter to refugees who had fled their home country because of political persecution, war, hunger or poverty.

Politicians, church leaders and opinion-formers more generally have a responsibility, at least in part, to counteract these racist tendencies, and the earlier action is taken, the easier it will be to avoid a real ’racist backlash’ which some European countries have had to confront in recent years. (The Catholic Church in Malta, in particular, has been practically silent on the immigration issue). This will require that politicians and other opinion leaders generally avoid language which could incite racism or aggravate tensions between communities, and also highlight the potentially positive effects of a managed immigration scheme.

The media, as well, in their role as educators of public opinion, bear a responsibility in this regard. Efforts should be made, if necessary with the help of EU financial support, to implement a sustained information exercise in the media through which professionals can articulate the plight of illegal migrants and the challenge that all countries in the world are facing as a result of displaced persons. Such a campaign needs to air regularly so that everyone concerned becomes more familiar with the socio-economic and socio-cultural reality these people are facing and the ways in which Malta intends to deal with them — humanely and in a properly managed manner.

It is clear that Malta does not have sufficient assets to effectively control its vast search and rescue zone. With only three off-shore patrol boats, as well as a handful of smaller vessels, the Armed Forces of Malta are responsible for an area which measures around 250,000 square kilometers. Moreover, the challenge in this regard is not only to deter irregular migration, but also to prevent the loss of life at sea — a particularly difficult task as the would-be immigrants typically travel in overloaded and unseaworthy boats across the Mediterranean and accidents are frequent. According to estimates of the Maltese government, at least 600 would-be immigrants drown in the Mediterranean every year, with the real figure probably being much higher.

With the launching of Frontex operations in the Central Mediterranean (so-called “Operation Nautilus”) in 2006, the EU has begun providing some support in this regard. However, Frontex has had a rather slow start; its operations have repeatedly been delayed and interrupted, mainly due to uncertainties over Libya’s role as well as budgetary constraints. In 2008, Frontex patrol missions, are for the first time, carried out throughout the entire migration season.

Nevertheless, the assets deployed in Frontex operations have thus far been very limited. In “Operation Nautilus” 2007, for example, contributions from other EU countries were limited to two German helicopters and an occasional presence of a Greek and a Spanish vessel as well as an Italian patrol aircraft. EU countries have generally been reluctant to provide the usually most needed patrol boats, as this entails the ’risk’ that the country providing the vessels will remain responsible for migrants rescued or intercepted at sea. As a result, at least according to officials of the Armed Forces of Malta, Malta has remained responsible for 90 percent of the surface coverage in Malta’s search and rescue area, even in the framework of Frontex’s operations.

The most serious shortcoming of Frontex’s operation in the Central Mediterranean, however, has been the lack of Libya’s participation, as Libya seems to consider measures such as joint maritime patrols as incompatible with the country’s sovereignty. It is commonly agreed that the Frontex’s maritime patrols can ultimately only be successful if Libya, as the main transit country, can be involved in these efforts. In this respect, there is also a fundamental difference between Frontex’s maritime patrols in the Central Mediterranean and its operations between the Canary Island and the West African coast, which have been carried out under Spanish leadership. In the latter case, Spain has been able to engage in very close collaboration with the main transit countries, Mauretania and Senegal, in the form of joint patrols and readmission of intercepted immigrants. And arguably as a consequence of this close collaboration, there has in recent years been a sharp decline of irregular migration from the West African coast towards the Canary Islands.

Given the still rather limited contribution from other EU countries to the Frontex operation in the Central Mediterranean, Malta should continue to lobby for a strengthening of Frontex. More EU countries should be encouraged to contribute, and those countries which are already contributing should provide more assets. Moreover, there is need to engage more closely with Libya in this area. Ultimately this will, of course, require a concerted EU effort, as Malta alone will hardly be able to elicit more collaboration from Libya. Nevertheless, the Armed Forces of Malta should further pursue their thus far rather low-key collaborative activities with Libya, such as training and information exchange in the area of search and rescue, in the hope that eventually Libya will be fully integrated into Frontex’s maritime patrols.

In doing so, Malta should also explore possible ways of building on the recently concluded agreement between Italy and Libya on border and immigration controls. In December 2007, the two countries signed an agreement which inter alia provides for joint maritime patrols between Italy and Libya, coupled with the provision of border control equipment and technical assistance by Italy to Libya. However, as collaboration with Libya is stepped up in the area of immigration control, Malta (and other EU countries) should also encourage Libya to sign and respect the Geneva Refugee Convention, as Libya is one of the few countries which have thus far not signed this essential document, and abuses of irregular immigrants in Libya have reportedly been rather wide-spread.

As a next step, one should also investigate the feasibility of upgrading the Frontex operation in the Mediterranean into a permanent Euro-Mediterranean Coastguard Agency (EMCA) that would be mandated to co-ordinate the co-operative security network with a mission statement and plan of action similar to those carried out by a coastguard. As with the case of Frontex, it is essential that this initiative should involve collaboration not only between EU countries but also between EU and southern Mediterranean states.

As experiences with irregular migration over recent years have shown, the challenges in coping with sea-borne migrants concern not only Malta’s (and other countries’) naval forces, but also the role of fishermen, as in the large majority of cases the would-be immigrants are first spotted or encountered by fishing vessels, which have a much larger presence at sea. However, while the fishermen could, in principle, play a crucial role in saving the lives of migrants who are in distress at sea, Maltese fishermen themselves have felt “under threat” from the growth in illegal immigration, and have criticized the insufficient support they have received from the government in coping with migrant encounters at sea.

According to representatives of the country’s main fishermen association (Ghaqda Kooperative tas-Sajd), Maltese fishermen, who often sail with a crew of only two or three, usually avoid coming too close to a boat carrying 20 to 30 migrants, as they fear being overpowered. Moreover, if they alert the authorities, it can take several hours to arrive on the spot, meaning that the fishermen’s day of work is lost without compensation. As a consequence, as Maltese fishermen themselves readily admit, in most cases when they come across irregular migrants at sea, they simply ’put the engine in full thrust’, leaving the migrants to fend for themselves.

From a humanitarian perspective, this situation seems unacceptable, and some kind of mechanism should be introduced whereby fishermen, who, as a consequence of rescue activities lose work, are compensated for this loss. Moreover, there is a need to inform Maltese fishermen more clearly about their obligations to rescue immigrants in situations of distress.

Port reform and transport reform

Two other issues that are currently receiving attention in Malta and are linked to necessary reform, as a result of EU membership, are those of port reform and reform of the public transport system.

The port reform process has resulted in a complete dismantling of government ownership of Malta’s main drydocks with a process of privatization currently underway. After years of debate and difficult negotiations, most of the Port workers have opted for early retirement when it became obvious that the government would not continue to guarantee their livelihoods.

With regards to the public transport sector, the government is determined to move ahead with a dismantling of the current monopoly that the Transport Authority has in this sector. Differences on the reform process between the government and the Transport Authority reached a high in August 2008 when the transport sector went on a national strike at the height of the tourist season causing immense harm to the economy. The government has since unveiled a plan of action for reform of the sector for public consultation, and has indicated that it will start liberalizing the sector in 2009.