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Last Updated: Monday, 9 July 2007, 13:22 GMT 14:22 UK
Malta struggles with migrants
By Alix Kroeger
BBC News, Valletta

Maltese launch
A Maltese launch: The country's resources are fully stretched

Patrol vessel P-61 cuts through the waves off the Maltese coast, while overhead a helicopter from the German federal police flies past.

But this is not a real border patrol of Malta's territorial waters: instead, it is a show of political support for the tiny island state.

The number of African migrants arriving in Malta has more than tripled: from 502 in 2003, to 1,780 last year.

Most of them are there by mistake. They wanted to get to Italy but were blown off course or were rescued at sea. They do not want to be in Malta and Malta does not particularly want them.

On board P-61 are EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini, the director of the EU external border agency Frontex, Ilkka Laitinen, and Maltese Justice Minister Tonio Borg.

The patrol goes no further than Valletta harbour. It would take too long, around five hours, to get out to the real patrol zone, and anyway the seas are too rough: it is unlikely any migrants will be risking the crossing today.

Pressure of numbers

Malta has been appealing for help: more ships, helicopters and equipment to increase border patrols. It also wants "burden-sharing": that is, EU countries less exposed by geography taking in a share of the migrants.


The patrol around Valletta demonstrates the limitations of EU solidarity. Frontex has just six assets - three Maltese patrol boats, two German helicopters and a launch - to patrol a sea area the size of Britain.

Greece and Spain have promised contributions. Italy, Malta's nearest neighbour, has stayed silent.

"The point is very clear: Malta cannot patrol alone a very broad area of search and rescue," says Mr Frattini.

"Our first preoccupation is to save people in need, but then we will start immediately with repatriation. We have to speed up procedures for repatriation."

Rapid reaction teams, including interpreters and experts on identification, are expected to begin work at the end of the month.

But Frontex has limited powers. It cannot turn back ships in international waters and if it comes across migrants in distress, it has an obligation to rescue them.

"We give them food, water, blankets, fuel, maps, things like that, and say, the best thing for you is to turn round and come back where you come from, because there is no perspective or future for you to enter that country," says Mr Laitinen.

Fishermen in frontline

Malta has been heavily criticised for incidents in which its fishing boats have refused to pick up African migrants found clinging to tuna nets.

EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini (right) and Maltese Justice Minister Tonio Borg
Mr Frattini (right) is urging EU members to bolster Frontex
At night, the migrant boats head for the first lights they see, which could be a fishing boat.

"The fishermen feel overwhelmed, because there might be up to six of them on board and suddenly, there are 30 Africans who are trying to board the fishing boat," explains Lt Col Martin Cauchi-Inglott, commander of the Maltese maritime squadron.

"There have been incidents where the fishermen have not let the migrants board their boats for security reasons," he says. "So the migrants have gone and clung onto these tuna pens. When they're trying to jump onto the fishing net, they'll all go to one side, and the boat will turn over."

In June alone, 210 people were reported dead or missing at sea in the Strait of Sicily, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. At least 10,000 have died trying to reach Europe's southern shores in the last ten years, estimates the International Centre on Migration Policy Development.

Shattered dreams

Those who make it to Malta face an uncertain future. They are held in closed detention centres for up to 18 months while their claims are processed. If they are granted refugee status or humanitarian protection, they are released to live in open centres.

Somali migrant Abdul Far-Ali
Somali migrant Abdul Far-Ali still wants to reach Italy
"(The migrants) get very, very disappointed because this is Europe," says Cristina Zammit of the Jesuit Refugee Service. She is one of a handful of professional social workers in the closed detention centres.

"For them, going to Europe is a new life, after all those months or even years of fleeing persecution."

Fights often break out, she says. In one of the centres, the migrants are only allowed out of their rooms for two hours of sunshine a week.

One of the biggest open centres is in a converted school in Marsa, a down-at-heel suburb of Valletta. Abdul Far-Ali, a 20-year-old Somali, has been in Malta for a year: eight months in a closed detention centre, four months outside.

"There are a lot of problems in my country, civil wars," he says. "I came to Malta by accident. I wanted to go to Italy."

He paid $600 (300; 440 euros) to make the sea crossing from Libya. He would like to go back to Somalia, but only if it were stable.

"When I was in the sea, a big ship captured us and brought us here," he says. He still hopes to get to Italy eventually.

In the morning, many of the migrants wait by the roadside in Marsa to pick up day labour. Much of it is on building sites like the ones at Dragut Point. Named after the 16th-Century Turkish invader of Malta, the area is now under development for hotels.

This is what Malta wants: more tourism. The migrants are an altogether less welcome influx.

"One migrant who arrives in Malta is like 150 arriving in Sicily or 200 in Germany," says Justice Minister Borg. "Since the beginning of this year, we have had 760, so you can work that out."

Maltese anger

Malta is hamstrung by an EU regulation which says asylum seekers must make their claim in the first EU country they enter. By an accident of geography, Malta receives a disproportionate number.

"We are moving towards a crisis if the present trend continues," Mr Borg warns. "It has created some right-wing opinions which before were hidden in the two mainstream parties. Now they have separated from the mainstream and formed their own party."

That party is Azzjoni Nazzjonali, which launched last month and is now picking up between 4.7 and 6% support in opinion polls. It will contest next year's election on, among other things, an anti-immigration agenda.

Its founder, Josie Muscat, calls the arrival of so many migrants "an invasion".

"Where does Malta's responsibility end?" he asks. "When we get 100,000? When we get 200,000? When will Europe or anybody in the world lift a finger and say, 'I'm going to help Malta, because Malta can take no more'?"

The backlash is not just political. There were arson attacks last year against church groups and journalists who publicly supported the migrants.

Seven cars belonging to the Jesuit Refugee Service were set on fire. The head of the JRS, Father Paul Pace, admits the attacks have had a chilling effect.

"(At first) you feel supported; there is a lot of solidarity. Then you realise you are dealing with persons who probably have less limits than you would have expected in a democratic society," he says.

There have been no attacks for several months now, but no one has been arrested or charged. The editor of Malta Today, Saviour Balzan, was asleep in bed when his home, opposite a police station, was attacked last year. His newspaper had just published an article supportive of the migrants.

They put tyres and petrol on the door but his dogs woke him up. "The fact that they had the gall to attack my house in front of a police station shows their intentions are clear," he says.

So Malta is struggling to cope.

In a field off the road to the airport, a tent city has been put up to accommodate the overspill of migrants coming out of the closed centres. The Hal-Far open centre can hold up to 840 residents: at the moment, there are around 750.

Each tent holds 24 bunks, divided by sheets and cardboard. In the summer, the temperature reaches 40C. The migrants have scavenged bits of old furniture. The camp manager is putting in purpose-built blocks for cooking and washing.

There are migrants from as far away as West Africa at Hal-Far, but most come from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan. Most move on as soon as they can. Their aim is to make enough money to get to Italy.

Extra border patrols at sea may turn some of them away, but as long as conflict, poverty and, possibly, climate change impel them to move, the migrant flows will continue. The pressure on Malta will only increase.

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