Malta swamped by growing wave of African migrants

Flood of illegals threatens to overwhelm Mediterranean island state.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
At least 17 Africans seeking entry into Israel have been killed by Egyptian border police so far this year. But Israel is not alone in facing the problem of African migration. Every EU state on the northern Mediterranean shore faces a potential influx of refugees. The immigrants come in small, overcrowded boats painted black to avoid detection from maritime patrols. Fleeing war, they apply for political asylum or are economic migrants seeking jobs and a better future away from the grinding poverty common in much of Africa. The small island state of Malta, 93 kilometers south of Sicily, lies on the route of many migrant boats making their way from the African shoreline to Europe. Maltese detention centers have already processed more than 10,000 illegal immigrants since 2002 - the equivalent of Israel dealing with some 177,000 migrants over the same period. This year is likely to set a new record with over 2,000 arrivals expected in Malta. On the face of it, the numbers do not appear large, but Malta is tiny with a population of only 410,000. With 1,266 people per square kilometer, Malta already has the highest population density in Europe, and is almost as overcrowded as Hong Kong and Gaza. Last week alone saw over 200 people arrive on Malta's shores. Most of the migrants come from the Horn of Africa and make their way to Libya where they often pay more than €1,000 to trafficking gangs for the passage in small boats to Europe. The voyage is dangerous and many die at sea. Last week one pregnant woman died shortly after being rescued by a cargo ship 100 kilometers off Malta, while two bodies were found floating nearby. Those intercepted by Maltese patrol boats are locked up in closed detention centers for up to 18 months while their cases are reviewed. Only a minority will be given permission to stay; most face eventual repatriation. The story of 18-year-old Isaac from Gambia is typical. He says he left on foot for neighboring Senegal after his father was murdered by government troops. Isaac then spent two months traveling via Mali and Algeria, eventually reaching Libya. He boarded a boat with nine other men and spent seven days at sea before being intercepted by a Maltese patrol boat. "If I go back to Gambia they will kill me," explained Isaac, speaking outside the Marsa Detention Center close to Valletta, Malta's capital. Isaac is still waiting to see if he will be allowed to stay in Malta. "The most important thing is to stay alive. I must go forward. I can't go back," Isaac insists, "I will go anywhere where I will be safe." Maltese officials warn that the island cannot cope with any more immigrants. "We have international obligations but we cannot give the impression to the outside that we are willing to take everyone," warns Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, the Maltese Minister for Justice and Home Affairs, "We have reached maximum capacity." The numbers arriving each year are equivalent to half the annual Maltese birthrate and the minister described illegal immigration as "one of the major challenges being faced by our country." The anti-immigration policy cuts across political lines. Dr. Michael Falzon, the opposition Labor Party spokesman on Home Affairs and Security, notes that 40 percent more immigrants have arrived this year compared to 2007. He claims the newcomers are posing an unacceptable burden on the Maltese economy and are willing to work in casual employment for less than half the average Maltese salary. "It's not a question of being racist or xenophobic," Falzon said, claiming that each illegal immigrant costs Malta €70-80 a day. Very few of the migrants actually want to stay on the island. Most cite Italy or other EU states as their destination of choice. Many seek to join relatives who have already settled elsewhere in Europe. There are very few immigrant communities in Malta. Malta joined the EU in 2004 and under the so-called "Dublin system," responsibility for asylum-seekers lies with the country of arrival. Despite constant, and increasingly desperate, Maltese pleas for "burden-sharing," fellow EU states, some struggling with their own immigration problems, have been reluctant to take migrants who have landed in Malta. In fact the US has accepted more of Malta's migrants than the other 26 members of the EU put together. While Isaac waits in the Marsa Detention Center for the Maltese authorities to decide his fate, EU decision makers continue with efforts to formulate an elusive common immigration policy. But as one EU country steps up border patrols and expels more migrants, the desperate immigrants seek new routes to the Mediterranean's northern rim. And the boats keep coming.