- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

About 1,500 “irregular immigrants” have landed in Malta this year, posing huge strains on the 90-square-mile Mediterranean island whose population is smaller than that of the District of Columbia, said Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.

Mr. Gonzi, on visit to Washington Monday, described the near-nightly arrivals as the “biggest crisis” facing his country.

Most of the migrants are seeking to make their way from North Africa into Europe by way of Italy. In bad weather, or in the case of engine failure, Malta becomes a welcome halfway refuge.

“We are smack in the middle of the corridor they use to reach Italy,” said Mr. Gonzi, whose country has a population of 400,000, compared with about 563,000 for Washington.

“We are a tiny island with the highest population density in the world. Every single one of the irregular immigrants that ends up on our shores is creating enormous pressure on our infrastructure, on our social network and on our support services.”

The arrivals are put in hastily erected refugee camps while their cases are examined.

“If they are genuine refugees, we have to integrate them within our society, which means jobs and schools,” Mr. Gonzi said. For those who don’t qualify, Malta faces the equally daunting task of repatriation.

As a member of the European Union, Malta has appealed for Brussels to share the burden. “This has to be recognized as an EU problem and therefore we have to come together and share in whatever manner possible in providing solutions.”

Malta cooperates with Italy and France on attempts to limit the refugee traffic in the Mediterranean, and the coast guards of all three nations take part in an extensive annual exercise called “Canale.”

The Maltese government also has sought help from Libya, the departure point for many of the migrants. Mr. Gonzi said the Libyans want to cooperate but say they lack the resources to effectively police their borders and coastline.

Mr. Gonzi said the refugee issue arose during talks with President Bush on Monday, as had cooperation in the fight against terrorism.

A month ago, the United States supplied Malta with equipment to monitor cargo in its large free port, and Mr. Gonzi said that had “produced results in the area of organized crime, counterfeits and intellectual property.”

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