- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 25, 2004

St. Paul, a prisoner on his way to trial in Rome, was shipwrecked on Malta’s shores 2,000 years ago and brought Christianity to the island. Today, illegal African immigrants are washing up, and Malta has become an entry point into the European Union. Maltese Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg, who is responsible for Malta’s immigration portfolio, recently spoke with reporter Tom Carter of The Washington Times in Valletta, Malta.

Question: Can you tell me something about Malta’s immigration issues?

Answer: We are at the geographical center of the Mediterranean, at the center of very important sea routes as well — in this regard, the migration of everything. The problem with illegal or irregular immigration in Malta, the source of that migration is Libya, not in the sense that Libyan nationals are coming. The big problem is having sub-Saharan Africans using Libya as a steppingstone to cross over.

At the beginning of June, there were only 100 detainees. [By mid-November], it had shot up to almost 800 detained, almost 52 boat arrivals. The pattern of this illegal migration is, they all leave from Libya.

Whether they left Libya in the same boat is something we are investigating. Probably there are some larger ships, which take them closer to Europe and then release them in small boats, which contain 20 to 25 people.

None of them arrive with documents. They claim to be mainly from Somalia. Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had 1,300 arrive, about 500 were from Somalia.

If they succeed in proving they are from Somalia, they are granted humanitarian status. This is the current threat of illegal migration.

There was only one arrival of more than 40 persons. Before, they used to come in large amounts and we could identify a captain. In a small boat, it is very difficult to identify an organizer. Probably there are no traffickers with them in the small boat.

The worst year was 2002 — 1,608 [detainees], then it went down to 459 [in 2003]. It shot up again this year to 1,300 by the end of October.

The problem is, what do you do with boatloads of people coming to Malta or crossing Malta to Italy? Very rarely are there immigrants who want to come to Malta directly. Usually something happens — fuel shortage, engine trouble, inclement weather. We only intervene or rescue them if they are in our rescue zone or in distress.

Q: Did Malta support the idea proposed by Italy and Germany to create refugee camps in Libya?

A: Yes. Unfortunately, it was completely misunderstood and it did not meet with the consensus of the European Union. The moment you use the word “camps,” people automatically think you are talking about concentration camps. We consider them centers of assistance for channeling people for regular migration — not irregular migration. This was supported by Malta.

Europe needs migrant workers, especially in the industrialized nations. Incidentally, even though there were a number of member states against, the idea has not been completely shelved.

The real problem is, what happens with those who are granted asylum or humanitarian status? Shall they be redistributed? How many would Germany get? How many would France get? In my heart of hearts, I think this was the real problem. Now we have burden shifting, not burden sharing.

In Malta, out of every two persons who arrive illegally, one gets some kind of protection — 50 percent. They are not refugees by the United Nations’ [definition], but they come from areas of civil strife. They cannot be sent back. In the past two years, Malta gave protection to 1,000 [asylum seekers] and about 70 refugees. The ratio is very high.

Malta is a small country with few resources.

Q: If professional smugglers decided to target Malta, you would be overwhelmed.

A: Malta is not targeted. The only problem we have is with Somalis. A small portion intend to come to Malta. Our resources are limited, but we are fighting for better joint patrols by EU states, and secondly, what happens to those migrants who are collected?

The idea is to involve Libya in these joint patrols to prevent them from leaving the North African coast. What we are trying to do is help the North African countries become the first country of asylum — by assisting them financially.

We repatriate about 600 a year. Libya always accepts back its own. We have never had a problem with North African nations, even Egypt. The problem is trying to persuade Libya to take back the ones who used Libya as a steppingstone.

Libya considers itself a victim, as much as Malta and the European Union. Libya has a [4,500-mile] border, a [1,200-mile] coastline. Libya feels that it should not be held responsible for the others.

Q: Is there anti-immigrant sentiment in Malta?

A: Yes. Particularly in the last two years, and it worries me. It worries me because Malta is very firm with regard to illegal migration, but we give full protection to anyone who qualifies, half of those who apply, which is one of the highest [percentages] in Europe. It shows there is accessibility to the process and the process works. Those who are not granted asylum status are usually sent back. More important, those who enter illegally and apply are kept in detention.

This has been the subject of controversy with [nongovernmental organizations], but we see this as in the national interest. If the [length of] detention exceeds what is reasonable, he will be released. After, one year, one year and a half, he should be released.

Otherwise, we apply a law that goes back to 1970 that anyone arriving in Malta illegally is kept in detention. This is a way of preserving our interests. Imagine a boat arrives with 30 people. It is like a boat with 3,000 arriving in Sicily. When we had 1,600 arrive in 2002, it was almost half our birthrate. For every two persons born in Malta, we had one illegal immigrant.

I am worried about this because, despite our firm stand, there is a xenophobic attitude, in all classes, transcending all political parties. You should see some of the e-mails I received after suggesting that we open a new [asylum] center.

Q: Malta has made a bid to host the European Union’s immigration agency.

A: Apart from the prestige of hosting the agency, we argue that our geographic position at the periphery of Europe, on its southern border, getting the seat of the agency here would draw the attention of [the European Union] to the problem, the real problem on the southern border.

You have millions of Africans who because of famine or war intend to cross over. They can use the Moroccan route into Spain, or they can use the central Mediterranean region. The first islands are Lampadusia or Malta or Sicily. Usually, the intention is to go to Sicily.

Once you get to Sicily, it is very easy to proceed to Germany or France. Everyone knows, out of every four migrants, only one remains in Italy. The other three go further north. The agency here would organize things better for the European Union. The idea for the agency is not to control the boarder but to coordinate better our efforts in the fight versus illegal migration, joint repatriation flights, etc.

The situation in the central Mediterranean is an issue. I think we [Europeans] are still taking a nationalist and egoistic immigration approach. The density of population in Malta is the fifth-highest in the world. Malta is bearing more than its fair share of the burden. Proportionally, we suffer the most of all European countries.

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