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From behind the barbed-wire fence that surrounds the detention camp in Sufi,
Bush – «yes, like George W» – Faoud describes how he came by the wounds on his
neck and arm. «I was stopped by two criminal soldiers in Darfur,» he says. «I
was shot in the arm and in the leg and my neck was broken. I ran away.»

He kept on running. His journey took him from Sudan to Libya, where he paid
a trafficker Dollars 800 to be put with 25 others on a small open boat that
they hoped was bound for Italy. The boat did not make it that far and they were
picked up by the Maltese authorities. Now, along with hundreds of others,
mainly Africans, he is detained in grim conditions, uncertain of the future.

Bush Faoud is part of an influx that has polarised opinion on Malta and
presented the EU with a moral and political dilemma. As conflicts continue in
Africa and the profitable trade in human trafficking soars, tens of thousands
of people are prepared to risk their lives in perilous crossings of the Sahara
desert and the Mediterranean sea to seek a new life in Europe. Libyan
traffickers sell them frail open craft with room for about 30 people and tell
them the journey to Italy is easy. Many drown.

Malta joined the EU only last year. As a member state it is obliged to deal
with the asylum applications of the arrivals, none of whom wants to stay in
Malta but all of whom are detained while their applications are processed. Many
fail to gain refugee status, so they hover in limbo, unable to return to their
countries, unwanted by tiny, overcrowded Malta and by mainland European
governments unsympathetic to African immigrants.

«Most of them come by mistake. They have never heard of Malta, but the boat
breaks down or they lose their way,» says Marija Schranz of the Jesuit Refugee
Service, one of the organisations dealing with the arrivals.

Those detained, now 1,500 of them, must remain in Safi and other barracks
while a decision is made on their status, a process that may take 18 months.
Those denied asylum, a further 1,000 at present, may be given «humanitarian
protection» that allows them to stay in open centres, mainly hostels in surplus
buildings, and seek low-paid work, but not travel elsewhere in Europe. Many
slip quietly away to Italy or France and try again, only to be shipped back to
Malta, which is obliged under EU law to keep them.

Their presence has provoked a reaction. Recently a Defend the Nation
demonstration, organised by the National Republican Alliance – whose secretary
general, Philip Beattie, says a «silent invasion» is under way – was held in
the capital, Valletta, amid scuffles and disputes.

Beattie, who works at the University of Malta, says he believes that most of
the arrivals are economic migrants who are taking Maltese jobs, and that to
release them would present a danger to Malta of a «social, moral and medicinal
nature». He told the rally: «We are proud to be Maltese and we just don’t want
to become the toilet of the Mediterranean.»

The hostility has had echoes on the ground. In an open centre in Marsa,
Salah Abdul Rahman from Mogadishu in Somalia shows a letter that has been
thrown in. «Illegal immigrant bummers,» it reads, «we do not want you in Malta.
Get out or we will start killing you. KKK.»

The open centre in Hal Far has not gone down well, according to one Maltese
refugee worker. «I take some of them home with me so that they have a change of
scenery and I would get phone calls saying, ‘Why did you have a black person in
your house?'»

The government is investigating the trafficking operation and proposing laws
to deal with asylum seekers. The home affairs minister, Tonio Borg, says there
is clearly a criminal organisation behind the arrivals.

The Africans who make up the majority of the asylum seekers – there are also
a few Iraqis, Pakistanis, Egyptians and Palestinians – know they are not
welcome but are bewildered at being locked up. In January a demonstration by
detainees in the camp was violently suppressed by police and 26 required
hospital treatment. Amnesty International and the UN High Commissioner for
Refugees protested.

The government does not permit journalists access to Safi to talk to the
detainees, but it is possible to speak to them through the wire. All are
desperate to leave Malta.

Ahmed Mahmoud, 17, from Sudan says: «My family were killed in Sudan,
probably by the Janjaweed. I wanted to go to Italy – I want to study.» Mahmoud
Swadi from Eritrea describes the journey to Malta: «We came across the Sahara
for five days and 13 of our group did not make it.»

Harry Vassallo, the chairman of Alternattiva Demokratika, the island’s Green
party, says he is appalled by conditions in Safi. «I’m no psychiatrist, but you
could see people walking round like zombies. It was completely inhuman . . . We
cannot take every refugee that comes out of Africa and we need other countries
to take them, but none of this can ever allow us to treat people inhumanly . .
.. 1.2 million tourists come every year and the island hasn’t sunk yet.»

Terry Gosden, the Englishman who runs the open centre in Masra, says of the
149 residents: «They don’t want to be here. Many of the immigrants are middle
class and my heart bleeds for Somalia and Eritrea – what will happen to those
countries without these people? We enable them to use this place to rest. There
is a lot of post-traumatic stress and they are extremely conscious of the
international mood.»

Running the centre’s cafe is Safiyo Mohamoud, 19, who explains how she
arrived there. «From Somalia we went by car to Ethiopia and then Sudan and
Khartoum. Then I was in Libya for one year working as a cleaner and saved up
Dollars 800 to pay for the boat. If I had known how dangerous it was, I wouldn
‘t have gone . . . I would like to go to England but I know it is expensive.»
Her application for refugee status has been rejected, so she has humanitarian
protection until she can be returned to Somalia or admitted to a «safe third

There lies the dilemma: which country in the EU will admit her? A Maltese
government spokesman says it sees the situation as an emergency, similar to an
earthquake, and is seeking EU help. So far the Netherlands has offered to take
some people and the Czech Republic and three other countries are considering.

«One has to point out,» the spokesman says, «that Malta, albeit the smallest
state in Europe with the highest population density, has one of the highest
acceptance rates, with nearly 60% being granted either refugee status or
humanitarian protection.»

For Bush Daoud and his fellow detainees, gazing out through the wire at a
tantalising glimpse of freedom, the future remains unclear. «We would like to
be free,» he says, adding, with perhaps a deeper truth than he realises, «We
are dreaming.»

Guardian Weekly, October 21, 2005