Male Nostrum: Malta and Immigration in the EU
Adrian Grima - 31/03/2005
Il Manifesto reported on Friday 25 March that according to a report by the Maltese secret service, there are about 500 Chinese people waiting to try to enter Sicily. Every week about 200 Chinese people arrive in Malta with the necessary visa issued in Beijing. It seems that the secret Maltese report claims that 70% of all Chinese who arrive in Malta disappear after a few days. A Chinese immigant has claimed that he paid 1,000 dollars to obtain a visa from the Maltese embassy. In a strongly-worded article in L-Orizzont entitled “Idejkom bid-Demm” (Your Blood-stained Hands), in which he asks for the immediate resignation of the Home Affairs minister, Joe Chetcuti asks why the authorities, who are aware of what is going on (they would be truly incompetent if they weren’t), don’t seem to be doing much to stop these shameful acts.
It has been estimated that from 1990 to 2000 more than 180,000 people arrived in Europe illegally by crossing the Mediterranean Sea that has been dubbed by Il Manifesto, “il Male Nostrum.” In her analysis of the issue of “Migrant Smuggling Via Maritime Routes” (2004), Paola Monzini of the Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale (Centre for the Study of International Politics) argues that the number of illegal immigrants arriving via maritime routes to Southern Europe “grew enormously in the last decade of the 20th century” and “the Mediterranean Sea has been identified as the main clandestine gateway to the European Union.” It seems that “migrant smuggling via maritime routes has seen a rapid and impetuous increase” because “it is the cheapest sector of the market for illegal immigration,” and because “it satisfies the demand coming from the most ‘urgent’ migratory pressures.”
Monzini, whose main sources are judicial files, police records and data, and interviews with governmental and non-governmental experts, identifies six major maritime routes in the Mediterranean that lead the migrants to Italy that have been developed since 1991. One of these routes starts from the Maltese archipelago, “which functions as a focal point of itineraries originating on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, by fishing boat, rubber dinghy or fast launches.” However, Monzini argues that the shortest crossing routes, mainly across the Otranto and Sicily-Malta channels, have been “progressively subject to more and more stringent controls.” The “strengthening of the Italian co-operation - including judicial co-operation - with Albania and Malta has had the effect of increasing risks, and therefore costs, for smuggling organizations.”
Libya, in the meantime, has emerged as a transit country. The recruitment basin of
the migrants who arrive in Sicily from North Africa has widened due to wars and political instability. Part of the flow which previously arrived through the Suez Canal now comes through the Sicily channel, and the growing difficulties involved in passing through the Straits of Gibraltar have contributed to an increase in the flow from Libya. Monzini argues that the constant adaptation of migratory flows to the availability of opportunities and crossable routes is evident; in Libya, the specialization of the organizations which control sea crossings has created the opportunity for a widening of the range of nationalities transported.
Malta and Immigration in the EU
Malta, a stone’s throw away from mainland Europe, has always been attractive as a stepping stone. Tighter controls on this ignoble business will make it more difficult for the traffickers but it will not stop them. “Più è pericoloso e degradante lo sbarco,” wrote Guglielmo Ragozzino in his front page editorial on Il Manifesto on 25 March, 2005, “più la malavita ne trae vantaggio.” (“The more dangerous and degrading the landing is, the more the criminals take advantage of the situation.”)
I tend to disagree with those who argue that now that Malta is a member of the EU it has become more attractive to people traffickers. It has been amply documented that the vast majority of the asylum seekers who end up in Malta are saved from sure death by the Maltese armed forces patrolling the coasts or are washed ashore against their will. Those who are refused refugee status in Malta know that they have little or no chance of being accepted in any other EU country. That leaves them stranded here on one of the most densely populated islands in the world. As Clare Azzopardi recounts in her excellent short story “/no adjective describe story/” (http://klandestini.britishcouncil.org/) some choose to take to the seas again in order to try to get into Italy in a clandestine way. If anything, Malta’s new status as a member of the EU has added to its so-called “security” obligations and this hasn’t made life for the asylum seeker any better.
On the other hand, it is probably true that in the eyes of those involved in the trafficking of Chinese migrants into Europe, entering Malta with a visa may be a convenient way of moving onto mainland Europe. However, if it is true that most of these Chinese migrants end up trying to reach the Italian coast in a clandestine way, then Malta is no more than a stage on a longer journey, not an “entry point” into Europe.
The Maltese government, and probably a good chunk of the Maltese population, cannot seem to come to terms with the fact that the flow of people from an impoverished South to a relatively comfortable North is something that is here to stay. It is an issue that has little to do with Malta itself and a lot to do with the gross inequalities that exist in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get invariably poorer. Many Maltese are, often superificially, aware of these larger issues but they cannot see, or they refuse to acknowledge, that these gross inequalities push people from the South to the North. “People move,” writes Yann Martel in his 2001 prize-winning novel Life of Pi, “because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.
The editor of The Times, Ray Bugeja, describes “irregular immigration” as the “foremost foreign policy issue facing Malta today and for the foreseeable future.” He urgest the government of Malta to embark on a “determined diplomatic offensive” to rally the concrete support of the other members of the EU. “The support must take the form of financial aid to put in place better basic organisational facilities to receive, administer and care for an increasing number of immigrants. It should include specialised manpower assistance.” Ray Bugeja argues that this support “must also take the form of real EU burden-sharing and diplomatic muscle to deal with the prevention of immigration at source, as well as the repatriation and resettlement of those who reach our shores.”
One would have expected Mr. Bugeja and other opinion makers to argue that Malta should also embark on an equally assertive diplomatic offensive to address the injustices and inequalities that force people to “uproot and leave everything they've known for a great unknown beyond the horizon” (Martel again). Now that it is a member of an economic and political powerhouse, Malta should be in a better position to actively lobby the EU to push for reforms in vital areas such as access to European markets for products from the poorer South and measures that ensure the sustainable development of countries that have bore the brunt of the often savage “progress” that has widened the gap between rich and poor, both between the North and the South and between privileged and underprivileged communities within the North itself. This sounds idealistic, and that is precisely what it is – but wasn’t joining the EU all about ideals? Or was it about expecting others to do for us what we are not ready to do for them? Is Malta now better placed to have a bigger say in the issues that affect the lives of the majority of the people of the world? Do we care?
In his editorial Ray Bugeja argues that we must also “face frankly our own attitudes as a nation to asylum-seekers. We cannot brush under the carpet our valid and genuine concerns to the introduction of alien cultures, backgrounds and religions and of the economic impact on our stretched resources and employment opportunities. Yet neither can we shirk our international and moral responsibilities towards those seeking asylum.” Despite the “rocky economic patch” Malta is going through, “we must show we are ready to shoulder our fair share of responsibility for those genuinely worse off than ourselves.”
Malta żgħira u n-nies magħrufa
In a country where, as the proverb goes, “Malta żgħira u n-nies magħrufa” (Malta is such a small island that everyone knows about one another), it is difficult to understand how traffickers with particularly powerful and well-equipped boats manage to get away with murder. The Opposition spokesman on home affairs, Gavin Gulia, suggests that the criminals involved in this despicable trade may also be involved in other crimes and therefore they may already be known to the police. Must people die and have the “fortune” of being found floating in the sea to jerk the country into action?
The tragedy of the Chinese and Mongolian persons who died on Thursday 24 March reminds many people of the horrific death of 286 migrants from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Italian territorial waters, off the southern coast of Sicily early on Boxing Day 1996. The Captain of the ship “Yiohan” and its crew forced the passengers to board a smaller Maltese boat, the 16-metre long F 174, in spite of the adverse sea conditions and strong opposition by the passengers. In the process, the two ships collided and most of those on the Maltese boat were sucked under when it sank. Only two dozen made it back onto the freighter.
“The Yiohan limped to Greece, where survivors spoke of the horror. And no one cared. Not the coastguard, not the Italian government, not the media. A cursory search for debris or bodies yielded nothing, so the story was dismissed.” It became the “phantom shipwreck.” That changed on 12 January 1997 when an investigation by The Observer of London, followed by investigative work by reporters in Greece, Italy, Pakistan, and Malta proved that the shipwreck had happened.
What would have happened had no one of the betrayed migrants survived? Would I be writing this article? Would the Maltese and Italian governments be clamping down on the evil trade that makes it all possible?
The “mare nostrum” is a cemetery, a mass grave where many betrayed people and many uncomfortable truths have been buried, perhaps for ever.
“Male Nostrum” indeed. Adrian Grima