Set up disembarkation locations outside the EU

Had Malta allowed the Aquarius to berth in its ports, that would have created a dangerous precedent and in a matter of days Malta would have had hundreds of migrants landing on its shores

It was bound to happen, and it’s only a matter of time before the flood gates are opened. Following the change of government in Italy, Malta now faces a massive threat from irregular migration. It is estimated that more than one hundred thousand people are waiting to leave northern Africa seeking a ‘better’ life in mainland Europe. The current Italian administration won on the back of promises that it shall put an end to thousands of people landing on their shores. That won’t happen, of course, for Italy’s geographical position, like Malta, exposes it to constant irregular migration.

The question is how to deal and cope with large numbers. The Maltese government refused entrance to a large vessel, hosting more than six hundred people into Maltese ports. Italy piled pressure, but Malta refused to budge. The law was on our side, we had no legal obligation to host the asylum seekers. Malta fulfilled its obligations and abided by all applicable conventions including its obligations within its Search and Rescue region. We did the right thing. So did the Nationalist Party, by supporting government’s position. That was a politically mature decision by Adrian Delia’s Nationalist Party and was, understandably, well received by the majority of Maltese citizens. Had Malta allowed the Aquarius to berth in its ports, that would have created a dangerous precedent and in a matter of days Malta would have had hundreds of migrants landing on its shores.

Unfortunately, at the heart of the matter are people: men, pregnant women and children. However, government must put things into perspective, and whilst ensuring that no lives are lost, and that medical assistance is given to those in need, the national interest must be safeguarded at all times.

Malta and Italy

However, the Aquarius is not, and shall not be a one-off incident. At the time of writing, media reports mention the possibility of tens of migrant boats crossing the Mediterranean waiting to disembark in the nearest port. Malta and Italy’s geographical position puts us at the centre of this human tragedy. Political bickering between Rome and Valletta will get us nowhere. Clearly, it’s going to be very difficult for the Maltese government to negotiate with the current Italian administration made up of far-right elements. Ridiculous statements, such as those made by Italian Infrastructure Minister Danilo Toninelli, that if the Maltese cannot cope with the obligations that come with the large rescue area it co-ordinates, then it should give up part of it, along with the fees it is paid, do not help to mend bridges. And they are factually wrong, too. However, both countries have no option but to come together and present a strong position within the European Union institutions.

Locally, we must be a united front – government and Opposition. We cannot afford to be politically divided on this matter. And it is naive to argue that Malta should accept hundreds of people to land on its shores, when international laws do not oblige us to do so. Malta is too small, and has no resources to host hundreds, if not thousands of irregular migrants. We cannot carry a burden which we are unable to cope and deal with. And within the European Union institutions, we must speak with one voice.

Way forward

The European Union is duty bound to find solutions before more lives are lost at sea – and before far-right elements continue to milk the matter to their advantage, putting the existence of this Union at risk.

For a start, processing of asylum must be speeded. Within a few months the applications for asylum should be decided, and those who are not eligible for asylum should be repatriated immediately. The situation in Libya too, is of primary importance if we are to stop thousands of Africans fleeing its shores. The elections in Libya are crucial to bring much needed stability in a country ravaged by civil war and anarchy. A stable Libya enables Brussels to set up disembarkation locations in Libya to process asylum claims, therefore decreasing drastically the large numbers of Africans crossing the Mediterranean. The last Nationalist Party administration had already made this proposal at an EU level.

Malta, despite its lack of resources, and being one of the smallest EU member states, is one of just two countries that accepted their fair share of migrants under the EU’s relocation mechanism and we have the second-highest rate of asylum applications after Sweden. Official statistics for 2017 show that Malta had the EU’s fourth-highest rate of asylum applications. Solidarity from all other member states, is a must. And we cannot bury our heads in the sand. The Maltese are understandably concerned and those who state otherwise, or argue that the Maltese are racist, are the usual armchair critics who would do well to, occasionally, step out of their ivory towers to understand what makes people genuinely worried.

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