THE holiday island of Malta is in the grip of an accidental tragedy: it is
directly in the path of a growing and potentially vast flow of asylum seekers
from sub-Saharan Africa to southern Europe.
Its proximity to Libya, 180 miles to the south, threatens the identity and
culture of the islanders. Thousands of refugees have made the crossing in recent
Libya has said that there are 1.5 million sub-Saharan Africans on its
territory and many have their sights set on Europe.
Many asylum seekers are fleeing persecution in Darfur and Somalia and unknown
numbers drown as they cross the Mediterranean.
The invasion of Malta is accidental: the boats are heading for the Italian
islands of Lampedusa and Sicily, which offer direct access to the rest of Italy.
But many of them run out of fuel or are hit by bad weather and seek a haven in
Malta instead. Boats have reached the island almost every night this summer.
Under European Union law, asylum seekers must stay in the European country
they first arrive in. Although Malta is no bigger than the Isle of Wight, it is
a sovereign member of the EU, so anyone who lands is stuck there.
Malta joined the EU last year and is now sounding the alarm in the hope of
receiving urgent assistance from the union. Government leaders and military
chiefs told The Daily Telegraph that their island was being swamped.
Tonio Borg, the justice minister, said: «What was a problem has evolved into
Five years ago Malta received only 24 illegal migrants. This year’s total
stands at more than 1,100 so far, with about 30 arrivals a night the
equivalent of 165,000 asylum seekers reaching Britain.
Some 4,000 asylum seekers have arrived since the crisis began in 2002. More
than half are eventually granted refugee status or humanitarian leave to remain.
Most of those refused asylum also stay on the island, in a limbo that is
miserable for all involved. It is hard to prove where they are from; harder
still to deport them to home countries that are sunk in anarchy.
Malta’s tradition of hospitality is being slowly poisoned by the crisis. New
hard-line nationalist groups are springing up, while politicians from the two
mainstream parties talk of «putting national interests before human rights».
A recent opinion poll by the island’s Sunday Times found that 90 per cent of
the population would not want an Arab, African or Jewish neighbour. In Balzan, a
pretty village that is home to a church-run centre for refugees, a trio of old
women enjoying the cool of the evening complained of «filthy» incomers taking
over their piazza. Joe Mallia, a pensioner, denounced «negroes taking our jobs».
Lawrence Gonzi, the prime minister, has urged the leaders of this pious, 95
per cent Roman Catholic island to moderate their language and remember the human
He said: «I keep reminding everyone that this is a human crisis. We have to
remain true to our values.»
But his government is taking a hard line, too. Adult asylum seekers are
locked up on arrival for up to 12 months in grim former army barracks, police
camps or converted warehouses.
The Daily Telegraph was refused permission to visit any detention centres,
but Fr Paul Pace, a Jesuit priest who works in the camps, described conditions
as worse than in any Maltese prison.
Support for the European Union has dropped sharply among the population, to
40 per cent in the latest polls.
Dolores Cristina, the minister for the family, said: «So far, EU membership
has been a hindrance.»
Many unaccompanied minors in the boats had family in Milan or Rome, she said.
«Malta would love to reunite them in Italy. Yet we are not allowed to do it
because of EU directives. Before accession, there was a possibility for people
to move on. We cannot live with this bottleneck here.»
Ministers pin their hopes on «EU burden-sharing», a fervent hope that larger
European states will volunteer to take in some of those granted asylum by Malta.
But the reality is that the bottleneck in Malta is not a problem for other
European governments. Taking in Malta’s refugees is also not a likely
Franco Frattini, the EU justice commissioner, recently cautioned Maltese
ministers in private not to expect to resettle large numbers of refugees in the
rest of the EU. He told them that such an initiative could be
counter-productive, merely attracting bigger numbers of illegal immigrants to
Britain, Malta’s former colonial ruler and close ally, has also sounded cool
to the idea of taking in refugees, saying that the matter is «under
In the medium term, Malta hopes that the lever of EU aid can be used to put
pressure on African nations to take back deported citizens.
But for Mr Gonzi the solution is longer-term still and far harder: the
transformation of the African continent.
«We have to give people a reason to live in their own country,» he said. «It
is the only thing that will stop this migration.»
Island with a turbulent past
Malta is the third most crowded country in the world, with a population
density of 3,200 people per square mile. Only Monaco and Singapore are more
First colonised by the Phoenicians, the Maltese fell under the rule of,
successively, Carthaginians, the Roman and Byzantine empires, Arabs, Normans,
the Knights of St John of Jerusalem and the French.
Finally, the island volunteered to join the British Empire in 1814 before
gaining its independence in 1964.
The Maltese are intensely proud that their hospitality is recorded in the
Bible. Acts 28 records that St Paul was shipwrecked on Malta and treated with
«no little kindness» by the inhabitants.
In 1942, George VI awarded the George Cross to «the island fortress of Malta
its people and defenders» in recognition of their resistance to more than
3,000 German and Italian air attacks.
The island survived another great siege. In 1565, it defied an invading
force of 40,000 Turks.
A far-Right political party has described the current influx of asylum
seekers as Malta’s «third great siege».
The Daily Telegraph (London) September 21, 2005