Malta: Africans' way station to the EU

Island nation struggles with a flood of illegal migrants bound for Europe.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    HOME FOR MIGRANTS: This old school was supposed to provide free housing for 700 people, but now holds 1,200.
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    Anti-immigrant graffiti now adorns Malta walls.
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Shaqaale Hassan handed $1,000 to people traffickers, confident it would secure his passage from Libya to Italy, and the European Union's sprawling labor market.

Instead, after three days adrift in the Mediterranean Sea, the small speed boat carrying the 23-year-old Somali and two dozen other illegal migrants was intercepted by a European Union patrol and the passengers were taken to a detention center on the nearby island of Malta – the EU's smallest member state.

Mr. Hassan says that he fled Mogadishu, Somalia, after a close friend was killed in cross-fire between militias. But after five months on Malta he says his prospects are limited. "The Maltese people don't want us. There's no work here and when we find a job we are paid nothing," he says. "In Somalia you live or you die, ... Here I am not dying, but I am not alive. I want to go to Italy."

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He is among nearly 2,500 Africans – the majority from Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan – to arrive this year. At least 550 other migrants fleeing war and poverty are reported to have died during the journey, although the actual toll is likely to be much higher.

By virtue of its geography, this 112-square-mile rock is now on the front line of the EU's battle to stem illegal immigration. Since 2002, the Maltese government has processed 11,500 refugees and economic migrants.

In a bid to shut the Mediterranean door to Europe, the EU's 27 leaders have pledged to tighten border controls and fill gaps in the labor market with workers from their nations. Yet the boats keep coming, challenging the dangerous seas and stepped-up EU sea and air patrols.

Each crossing season, roughly between March and September, brings a ratcheting-up of racial tension as the patriotic, ethnically homogenous, and highly politicized Maltese clash with the migrants. Anti-immigrant graffiti is now common on the sandstone walls of Valletta, Malta's capital.

"There's an ugly xenophobia developing here and the government carries some responsibility for that," says Neil Falzon, the local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "It keeps trying to sell the idea that Malta can't cope. The truth is that it has to. The government should be leading the process of integrating them with jobs, education, and homes instead of taking part in this kind of national hysteria."

Malta is the only EU nation to automatically detain all illegal migrants for up to 18 months – there are currently 2,000 in the ramshackle camps. It is a policy widely condemned as inhumane and potentially in violation of the Geneva Convention.

Hassan was released in September and granted humanitarian protection – a status given to all refugees from Somalia. He now works six hours a day on a building site earning €3.50 an hour ($4.90) and shares a bunk bed in an overcrowded, squalid center established to house newcomers with nowhere else to go.

Existing European rules – known as the Dublin II Convention – say Hassan cannot move from the country where he claimed asylum. The center-right Nationalist Party government is frantically lobbying the European Commission to revise the law; it says the island's resources have been stretched to breaking point by the sudden migrant influx.

"When the first boat came we thought we would have 100 people to look after so we built a temporary detention center for them. Within a week, it [held] 200 people and it hasn't stopped since," explains Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, Malta's minister for justice and home affairs. "These people don't want to come here, they want to go to Italy, Germany, or Holland where they have family or contacts. We're a small island and this problem is bigger than us."

So far, the EU has responded by setting up a €5 million ($7 million) fund to induce asylum seekers to return home with a "resettlement grant." The US has also offered entry to 200 of Malta's Somalis, and pledged to take up to 400 more next year. While this is welcome, Dr. Bonnici says the measures fall short of what is needed.

Local activists are urging Malta's government to soften its attitude to migrants. They estimate that 98 percent of young migrants do not receive education. Around half of the 4,000 migrants who have been released from detention live in two cramped, unsanitary centers. The migrants take the manual-labor jobs shunned by an increasingly well educated Maltese population. But the concept of a settled African population is still anathema to many Maltese.

"The result will be a social catastrophe," says Father Joseph Cassar of the Jesuit Refugee Service, which does advocacy work for migrants. "In five years I fear we'll see ghettoes, social unrest, and a rise of far-right politics.

"These people are running from the extremes of human behavior – torture, rape, and violence – and deep poverty. It cannot be right to treat them with contempt in Europe."

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