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Malta: Africans' way station to the EU

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

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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.

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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."