The return of the boats
James Debono - 03/06/2011
The sudden arrival of nearly 1000 migrants from Libya, 800 of which in the space of two days, following a lull in arrivals during the previous year, has added fuel to the fear mongers who thrive on Europe’s perceived indifference to Malta’s plight.
Nobody raised any objections when the country’s resources were stretched to the limits as Malta basked in the international limelight serving as a logistical base for the mass exodus of foreign workers escaping Libya.
But the sudden albeit expected arrival of sub Saharan migrants fleeing the war in Libya left an altogether different sensation of unease with the government immediately describing the arrivals as a “crisis” and the opposition insisting that not enough is being done in defending the “national interest”.
Both daily Maltese newspapers the labour leaning l-Orizzont and the conservative In-Nazzjon referred to the 812 asylum seekers- who arrived in Malta on two boats as “illegal immigrants” ignoring the fact that most of these persons were asylum seekers seeking protection.
“It is quite clear that these persons are coming from a country (Libya) were their life and safety could be in danger. Added to this, they cannot return to Somalia and Eritrea – their countries of origin – where they experience the same problem,” Jon Hoisaeter told newspaper MaltaToday in an interview published in April.
( www.maltatoday.com.mt/exodus )
Hoisaeter blamed the ill-will of a section of the Maltese public on the constant labelling of migrants as illegals.
“What do you expect, if the Maltese are constantly told that these are illegal immigrants? Why is the ‘illegal’ tag used with regards to people who qualify – by right – for protection?”
The sudden arrival of three boatloads of migrants contrasted with the lull in arrivals, which lasted from Autumn 2009 to last April.
But before that immigration was the top concern of the Maltese as confirmed by a Eurobarometer survey conducted in Spring 2009. But the subsequent decrease in arrivals resulted in a sharp drop in those concerned with immigration-a clear indication that it is the dramatic arrival of migrants on boats that mostly triggers Maltese apprehensions. ( archive.maltatoday.com )
The decrease in arrivals was locally attributed to the pushbacks policy adopted by the Italian and Libyan governments, which was welcomed by both major political parties in Malta on the grounds that it decreased the number of dangerous crossing in Mediterranean.
Through this policy, hundreds of potential migrants were intercepted at sea and sent to Libya, thus being denied the right to seek asylum. In a solitary case in August 2010 Malta a boat in distress was intercepted by both Libyans and Maltese with the immigrants being arbitrarily split between the two countries.
Malta also supported Gaddafi’s demand for €5 billion which came with a threat that he will swamp the continent with African migrants.
All this changed following the brutal repression of the Libyan uprising. With Berlusconi’s Italy reneging on its former ally and actively participating in the present military intervention to enforce UN resolution 1973– boats started making the dangerous crossing again.
And unlike previous arrivals consisting mainly of young adult males, this time round, the number of minors and women has increased from 12% to 31%.
Yet despite coming from a terrible ordeal some of the aylum seekers are still kept in detention while families are kept in a makeshift open centre in a former airport hanger.
Interviewed by MaltaToday journalist Karl Stagno Navarra Eritrean priest Fr Moses Zerai, founder and coordinator of Eritrean refugee agency Habeshia expressed his frustration to see how those refugees who have managed to reach Malta are being treated.
“I know that the situation in Italy is bad, but nothing can be compared to what I have seen at the Hal Far detention centre... I am utterly shocked to see men, women and children in a hangar and kept in such squalid conditions….Children are playing on filthy floors, their mothers are telling me that they are getting sick because of infections and irritations, while the hygienic conditions are appalling with open sewers and rats that come out at night.” ( www.maltatoday.com )
But there was no national uproar on these conditions as discussion focused on the EU’s perceived unwillingness to shoulder Malta’s burden.
In reality the situation was not as bleak as some made it to be.
EU member states have pledged to resettle 323 asylum seekers from Libya. Malta also received €126 million in EU funds for immigration; and the bolstering of the Office of the Commissioner for Refugees has gone a long way in making the processing of asylum claims more effective and faster. But Europe has so far refrained from setting a compulsory “responsibility sharing” mechanism.
The fact that Malta is contributing more than its fair share is even recognised by UNHCR whose spokesperson pointed out that “800 new migrants in Malta constitute the equivalent of 120,000 migrants in Italy.”
One of the most striking aspects of the debate was how the centre-left Labour Party assumed the role of populist right wing parties in Europe.
Opposition leader Joseph Muscat referred to instances where EU member states pass the buck to each other on immigration as an example of strong stands.
“Italy issued its asylum seekers with temporary travel documents, so they travel upwards. France refused them and so did Germany, because they took unilateral stands not to apply the rules. So Malta shouldn’t be wary about taking a strong attitude in favour of the national interest. The national interests comes first and before anything else.” This limited definition of the national interest contrasted with that expressed by the Jesuit Refugee Services view that “the national interest is better served when in times of a crisis a nation rises to the occasion rather than dumps its values.” ( www.timesofmalta.com )
Muscat even described Italy’s decision to deny entry to 170 migrants rescued by the Maltese as "the right one".
And even the previously dormant far right added its voice through its most notorious representative Norman Lowell– a notorious holocaust denier who is already convicted by Maltese courts for inciting racial hatred but who prides himself in winning 3559 votes in elections for the European parliament in June 2009.
In a 26-minute rant peppered with attacks against black people Lowell praised the Leader of the Opposition for “showing recently that his heart is beating in the right place” adding that if he remains strong “he will get our backing at the general election,” ( www.timesofmalta.com/immigration ) Muscat was quick to distance himself from the “racist” Lowell arguing that his strong stance was aimed at nipping the far right vote in the bud.
However it was the example given by other countries like France and Italy which strengthened calls for a tougher stance. While the current crisis has exposed the contradictions characterising right-wing thinking on migration-basically there can be little solidarity on migration between governments elected on a hardline anti-immigration ticket, the gut feeling of many in Malta is to emulate those who are taking a hard-line stance.
Ultimately Malta failed to take stock of the situation during last year’s interlude, by taking concrete measures aimed at the integration of migrants, some of which are here to stay.
In contrast to the popular myth that the country is being swamped, the number of Sub-Saharan migrants living in Malta is less than 5000, which amounts to about 1% of the population.
The perception of immigration as a crisis is rooted in wild misconceptions regarding the actual scale of the problem facing Malta, an opinion poll published in 2009 showed.
The survey ( archive.maltatoday.com.html ) revealed that 84% think Malta faces a “national crisis” because of immigration. But 50.4% believed that fewer than 500 migrants of the 12500 migrants, which arrived between 2002 and 2009, have been repatriated. A further 5.7% believed no immigrants at all left the island in the same period.
The survey also revealed that 75% of the Maltese have no contact whatever with illegal immigrants. Only 25% have ever spoken to an illegal immigrant.
Asked how the authorities should respond to a distress call from a drowning boat full of illegal immigrants, 4.3% brutally replied that the authorities should take no action and let the immigrants drown while 55.3% replied that the authorities should offer their help on the high seas and allow the migrants to proceed their journey.
This general insensitivity to the plight of migrants recently prompted Gozo Bishop Mgr. Grech to condemn the general indifference towards tragedies at sea - such as the perishing of some 250 migrants trying to reach Lampedusa from Libya.
“I see most remaining silent, indifferent, or trying to avoid the truth,” Mgr Grech said.
( www.maltatoday.com.migrant-deaths )