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.