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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 12:28 GMT 13:28 UK
Malta faces African emigrant flood
By Mike Donkin
BBC News, Malta

Migrants are charged hefty fees for places on flimsy boats

In Malta's historic harbour a grey marine patrol ship cuts through the brightly painted tourist craft to land what has become a routine - and tragic - human cargo.

Huddled, damp and exhausted on deck are 21 Somali emigrants plucked from a leaky open boat after a grim voyage from Libya.

They are among nearly 1,700 emigrants from Africa who have been rescued off Malta's shores so far this year. Another 1,800 came last year.

Malta - tiny and densely populated - is now on Europe's new Mediterranean frontline for African emigrants.

It just cannot cope and is pressing fellow EU nations to help.

Treacherous voyage

I go aboard the boat that rescued the Somalis to hear about their voyage. Each paid $600 (320) to a smuggling gang, they say.

Detainment facility
Detainment facilities are stretched to the limit

"Our journey was so very bad," one man tells me. "When we left there were 27 of us. But six of them are dead. They threw themselves into the sea."

Another emigrant says: "It was very terrible to get here. We also thought all of us would die at sea - because there was no food, no water. And we didn't have anyone to help us."

I ask if he is relieved now to be in Malta. "Yes, I am. We are very happy to have our lives - to be safe in this place."

But the relief quickly wears off. The emigrants are detained for a year or so behind barbed wire while it is decided whether they will get refugee status - few do - or can stay on humanitarian grounds.

Then they go to one of several packed open centres, where they are fed and housed for free. The biggest, at Marsa, is now scarcely habitable. It is a sprawl of old school classrooms beside a canal.

Job fears

Victor Fiorini helps run it, and takes me on a tour, through the bunk beds crammed into a workshop-turned-dormitory and into a yard where there is a tent.

Patrol boat bringing migrants ashore
About 1,700 migrants have been rescued from the sea this year

We go inside. "There are 20 people sleeping in here," Victor says. "Just now it's raining and you can see that it's already flooding.

"Basically we need to close this tent down, but we don't know where we would put these people. There's simply no more space."

The biggest complaint that Marsa's residents have, however, is not about their accommodation. It is about the lack of jobs in Malta, which makes it impossible to find the new life they risked the seas to find.

Gettu is an Eritrean among a line of jobseekers who are touting for work around a building site and along the main road outside the centre. He is a fit-looking man in his twenties.

Deputy Interior Minister Louis Galea
We have meagre resources to deal with these problems
Louis Galea,
Deputy Interior Minister

"No-one here has got a proper job. Malta is a small country. There is no employment here," Gettu says.

"Maybe you get one day's work. After that you just must just sleep."

It's a world away from Malta's preferred image as a Mediterranean sunspot.

In the capital, Valletta, the horse and carriage drivers ply their trade and the pavement cafes are full of mostly British holidaymakers tucking into ice creams and sweet pastries.

These visitors are welcome. They make up the thickest slice of the Maltese economy. But for most Maltese residents - like Joseph Agius, who is in the tourist trade - the other unsought influx is not.

"I don't want to sound like a racist," Joseph says. "But what if these people get Maltese citizenship? The civil service will have to provide for them.

"These people will get payments which will eat up the social benefits that my children should one day get... from the taxes I have paid."

Stretched crews

Malta's government says the tiny island simply cannot cope and its new and powerful ally, the European Union, must help.

Malta wants to see joint sea patrols and to get funds to deal with the emigrants, Deputy Interior Minister Louis Galea tells me.

With the boats we have and the size of our island, Malta cannot cope alone
Lt Russell Caruana,
patrol ship skipper

Most importantly, larger, richer EU nations should give homes to most of those whom an accident of geography brings to these shores.

"Malta is perhaps the most densely populated piece of rock on planet Earth. We have meagre resources to deal with these problems," Mr Galea says.

"It is therefore important that more EU states come up with concrete co-operation by taking more of the illegal immigrants. They may arrive in Malta, but in fact they want to settle in the European Union not Malta."

The emigrants are exhausted as they struggle ashore but the rescuing ships' crew are at their limits too.

The overstretched Armed Forces keep watch for more of the flimsy, leaking boats.

"We do our best to save every life and we have saved many," says patrol ship skipper Lt Russell Caruana. "But we are very, very stretched."

"We surely need more help from Europe and from everyone. With the boats we have and the size of our island, Malta cannot cope alone."

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