Mohammed Abdi, an asylum seeker from Somalia, counts himself to have
made two new sets of friends this month. One being the "generous" people
of Malta, who took him and 102 other African migrants in after their
boat got into difficulties en route from Libya to Europe this month.
Saturday, July 27, 2013
other is the European Court of Human Rights, which stopped Malta's
not-so-generous Prime Minister, Joseph Muscat, from flying them back to
Libya after saying the island could not cope with more asylum seekers.
would have been wrong to send us back to Libya," beamed Abdi, 30, who
now lives in a dormitory in an immigration detention centre surrounded
by 6m barbed-wire fences.
"We are sorry for the people of Malta, who are very generous, but we do need help as conditions are terrible in my country."
on a tiny but strategic set of islands between Europe and Africa, the
Maltese have long prided themselves on their ability to repel unwanted
invaders. In the 1500s, their resident Knights of St John were the
heroes of Europe after seeing off the Ottoman Turks, and in World War II
they were awarded the George Cross for helping Britain keep Hitler at
But their latest efforts to turn back a foreign armada are unlikely
to win such plaudits. Not from the European Union, anyway, which last
week was embroiled in a row with Muscat's Government over its plans to
return Abdi and his ilk to Libya, from where they came in a
Muscat accuses Brussels of lecturing Malta about human rights while doing nothing to share the burden.
now we cannot cope with these numbers, they are unsustainable. Malta is
the smallest state in the EU, and we are carrying a burden ... much
bigger than any other country."
Muscat, 39, was speaking during
an official visit to Rome last week, shortly after the European Court of
Human Rights had issued an interim order blocking any attempts to fly
the Somalis back to Libya.
Strasbourg's judges backed claims by
Maltese human rights groups and EU commissioners that Muscat was
violating EU law by not allowing them to make asylum claims first, and
that the move was an illegal "push-back".
"This is not push-back,
it is a message that we are not pushovers," Muscat retorted. As a
contributor to the EU bailouts of its southern European neighbours, he
said, Malta should expect the EU to offer something in return. "People
say 'solidarity, solidarity', but then nothing happens."
African immigrants who arrive in Malta usually want to move on from there into bigger European nations. Photo / AP
Muscat, whose centre-left Labour Party resents the charges of xenophobia
that have been levelled at it, really intended to carry out the
"push-back" is a matter of debate.
Some suspect it was just a stunt to force Brussels to give practical help rather than high-handed lectures.
As Muscat himself puts it: "We have stamped our feet to say, 'Look guys, don't leave us alone'."
way, the row has highlighted how Malta - and nearby Italy - are
struggling to reconcile their obligations as EU states with their
unsought role as the doormat for African migrants seeking entry to
As Europe's southernmost nation, lying level with
Tunisia, Malta's immigration problems are not just about numbers. While
Britain frets about an influx of educated, English-speaking eastern
Europeans, Malta mainly gets arrivals from the poorest and most war-torn
parts of sub-Saharan Africa.
Most arrive largely destitute after
spending most of their savings on a 600 ($1145) people smuggler's fee
and the gruelling 15-day trip by truck and foot across the Sahara. And
although resourcefulness is needed to make that journey, many have
little schooling and speak neither Maltese nor English, Malta's second
Hence the groups of Africans who gather at certain road
junctions around the capital, Valletta, hoping for labouring work from
passing builders and hoteliers. It can be a long wait. "I have been here
a month, and have found nothing," said Goodluck Ajeh, 25, a footballer
from Nigeria. "I will take any job - right now I am just looking for my
Unusually for an EU country, Malta makes all
illegal arrivals stay in secure detention centres while their asylum
claims are dealt with, a process that can take up to 18 months.
when that time expires, few are sent back. Nearly 90 per cent are from
Somalia and Eritrea, both seen as too dangerous for deportation.
is likewise off-limits, because of a wave of reprisals carried out
against black Africans for their role in fighting as mercenaries for
Muammar Gaddafi in Libya's civil war.
Instead, they end up
languishing in large, Government-run hostels and overcrowded rented
homes, where they stand out conspicuously.
While local residents
pride themselves on being tolerant and cosmopolitan - large numbers of
Maltese live abroad as immigrants themselves - there are tensions in
areas such as Marsa, a shipyard town of 6000.
"For a place our
size to be invaded by about 1000 immigrants in the last six or seven
years is a big shock," said Marsa's Labour mayor, Francis Debona, 53.
"It's not because they are black, it's just a matter of suddenly having
another big population with cultures and practices that are very
different to our own.
"It's all very well for the European Court
to say these people can't be sent back, but their judges don't live
around here, do they?"
A straw poll revealed a mixture of views
around Marsa. Some insisted the migrants caused no particular trouble, a
view backed by Andrew Seychell, Malta's senior immigration policeman,
who says there is no sign of a linked crime wave. But others accused
them of unclean habits and blamed them for a fall in house prices.
night you see them around here, drinking and making a mess," said
Raymond Zammit, 51, pointing to stains on the pavement near his tyre
business, which he said were caused by beer, wine and urine.
"The kids feel afraid to play in the parks," added Gerard Camelleri, 59.
another few years, Malta is going to be African." In fact, few African
immigrants seek to put down roots in Malta, preferring to head to
mainland Europe, where job prospects are better, and where they can
legally go under the EU's borderless system.
But that creates
another problem. The rules insist they must return to the country where
they first claimed asylum within three months, and while the majority
simply overstay, every year hundreds are caught and forcibly returned to
As such, few of the estimated 5000 in Malta have any real
interest in settling, and therefore little incentive to integrate.
"Some will try five times a year to leave Malta for somewhere better,"
said one refugee worker. "Then, every time they are sent back, they
start at square one again."
Having ticked Malta off over the
"push-back" talk, the European home affairs commissioner, Cecilia
Malmstrom, offered to make extra emergency funds available and also
pledged to do more to get other EU states to take some of Malta's
immigrants. A transfer scheme is already in place, but over the past
decade other European nations have taken only 700 of Malta's arrivals,
with the United States taking 1300.
At the same time, the
Government embarked on a public relations damage-limitation exercise,
trying to allay concerns about asylum seekers' treatment with a visit to
the detention centre where the Somalis were.
Abdi, the Somali
who dodged deportation, said he was "very happy with the conditions, and
very happy to be here". Whether his cheer will survive a stay in the
detention centre and a spell of roadside job-seeking is another matter.
And if more boats come it may no longer just be Muscat stamping his