Anonymous in the Mediterranean

  Anonymous in the Mediterranean While people in desperate search of a present, and perhaps a future, continue to die a horrifying, anonymous death in the waters of the Mediterranean, Malta has found itself embroiled in a rather unusual high profile clash with its neighbour Italy over the deaths at sea of nine Chinese and Mongolian nationals, who were forcibly abandoned in rough seas 15 nautical miles off Punta Secca, in Ragusa, Sicily, by two hooded Maltese migrant traffickers, one of whom was carrying a submachine gun, early on Thursday morning, 24 March, 2005. Apparently, each of the 15 migrants had paid what must have been a fortune for them for the trip, between $1,000 and 2,100 euros.

Domenico Platania, the chief investigator from the Office of the Attorney in Modica in Sicily, has accused the Maltese of not collaborating with investigations into these brutal deaths. Platania told the national newspaper La Sicilia that this is not the first time that Malta is not helping the investigators. He said that on a number of occasions his office identified those responsible for human trafficking but failed to obtain their extradition from Malta. “The problem,” he said, “is not judiciary, but political, because Malta has become a fundamental link for illegal migration towards Italy.”

The Maltese government has delivered a formal protest, or “note verbale,” to the Italian ambassador in Malta, Alvise Memmo, to deny accusations made by Italian authorities and to demand that Domenico Platania take back his words, considered “gratuitous” and “unfounded” by the Maltese government, about Malta’s alleged lack of collaboration. La Sicilia has established that there has certainly been some useful collaboration in the recent past in terms of identifying criminals that have been tried and found guilty. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has strongly denied that there are any pending requests from Italy to extradite people in connection with human trafficking and has asked the Italian authorities to specify when the Maltese are supposed to have failed to cooperate with them. According to Il Manifesto Malta is ready to take back three Colombians and a Chinese national who were in Malta before they tried to enter Sicily as clandestine immigrants.

Huge Network of Exploitation and Abuse

But the tragic death of the migrants and the Italian reaction has set many balls rolling. reports that the police are homing in on the Maltese men involved in this heinous act, perhaps two brothers from the village of Naxxar who have recently bought a speedboat with four 250hp engines, and on Chinese nationals involved in this huge network of exploitation and abuse who are perhaps linked to the Triad, or Chinese mafia. It seems that one of the two Maltese menhas a rather conspicuous tattoo on his arm. The police have confiscated a number of power boats. They are also investigating an official in the Maltese embassy in Beijing whose name has been divulged by the Maltese press. Anonymous in the Mediterranean In an article in The Malta Independent, senior journalist Noel Grima referred to “what looks like a huge network” that is organizing the arrival of Chinese nationals in Malta as legal visitors and their clandestine transfer to Italy on very fast boats that cross in just over an hour. “They seem to be settling in Tuscany and similar regions in the central part of Italy where some are sent to work in sweat shops for a meagre pay of 40 to 50 euros a week.” Others are roped into the prostitution business.

But that there is also disagreement between Malta and Italy on another, traditionally contentious issue: On Monday 28 March, the Italian ambassador in Malta, Alvise Memmo, said that his government was “upset” that the Maltese authorities were resisting a request to take back 46 Chinese immigrants who, “evidence proved,” had travelled to Italy illegally from Malta. The Maltese Home Affairs Minister, Tonio Borg, said that Malta would accept to take the Chinese migrants once it was satisfied they had indeed left from Malta. Giuseppe Bellassai, chief of the Ragusa police mobile squad, has claimed in Corriere della Sera that 10 boatloads of Chinese have arrived in Sicily from Malta over the past two months. “They leave from Malta to Sicily where they find the support of organisations led by other Chinese immigrants. Two have already been arrested to help in investigations.” It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese nationals residing in Italy without the necessary permits.

The Italians have attacked the Maltese authorities for failing to crack down on traffickers and for allowing relatively large numbers of Chinese to enter Malta and move on illegally to Italy. On October 16, 2004, for example, 14 Chinese illegal immigrants were caught in Sicily and the Italian police suspected they arrived there from Malta. This was the second landing of Chinese illegal immigrants on the Ragusa coast in less than four days. On 2 October, 32 illegal immigrants landed between Torre del Mezzo and Marina di Ragusa. Twenty-two said they were Chinese, and the other 10 claimed to be Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians.

On 11 June, 2004, two Maltese men, Tony Gauci, 48, and Emanuel Seychell, 37, were caught in Pozzallo after allegedly ferrying four Chinese illegal immigrants from Malta to Sicily on board a yacht called Adelina. Another seven Chinese immigrants were intercepted at Punta di Mola on 31 July. According to Italian newspaper reports, about 300 Chinese have entered Italy illegally through Malta between October 2004 and March 2005. Over a year ago, Italy and Malta agreed that illegal immigrants who may have transited in Malta before landing in Italy would be sent back to Malta and this has happened on a number of occasions.

In an editorial of the influential Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times, Laurence Grech argued that in the light of the “disquieting news” about the deaths of the Chinese and Mongolian migrants that has put the island “in a very bad light,” “the greatest sign of co-operation by Malta in bringing the criminals involved to justice would be to hand over any Maltese suspects to the Italian authorities to undergo criminal proceedings in Sicily (as they have invariably done), once the crime happened on Italian territory.

The Italian daily Il Manifesto has reported that according to the Italian Home Affairs Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, in the past few years at least 1167 persons have failed to reach the island of Sicily and have perished in the Mediterranean sea. but, of course, it is impossible to know how many more have actually died trying to get to Italy.

The Maltese government has strongly denied the allegations that it has not done its utmost to assist the Sicilian authorities in their work and the Commissioner of Police has said that both police forces have always had the best of relations and that they have always assisted each other in such investigations.

The uproar over the brutal murder of the migrants has had its effects. Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg told newspapers on Monday 28 March that a number of people had been held in connection with the investigations into this case. Meanwhile, according to The Malta Independent, Italian media reports said the police in Malta had made searches in various localities “known for criminal activity and in particular in the areas where Chinese immigrants live.” Searches were conducted in various homes, shops and stores.

The Italian national television station RAI has given prominence to what the Maltese opposition foreign affairs spokesman Leo Brincat had said in Parliament last December 2004, when he alleged that a diplomat in the Maltese embassy in Beijing was working in collusion with a Chinese travel agent to issue visas to potential migrants posing as Chinese students of English in Malta.

One of the six survivors, a young woman, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the speedboat left Malta at one o’clock in the morning on that ill-fated Thursday. At 3.30am one of the two Maltese men ordered the migrants to jump into the sea because they were close to Sicily. It was not true at all. To make matters worse, the sea was very cold (2°C) and some of the migrants couldn’t swim. Adrian Grima

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