In the first nine months of this year, 124,630 migrants entered the European Union irregularly, two-thirds of them through the Central Mediterranean route where we are situated.

Another 1,823 were reported dead or missing. Most of these migrants left their countries (Tunisia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Morocco and Algeria) in search of a job to support their poor families back home. The rest who were fleeing violence came mostly from Afghanistan and Syria.

Smugglers operating out of Libya make €100 to €200 million a year from their criminal business. They are part of global networks stretching from the heart of Asia and Africa to the heart of Europe,  which make estimated profits of €29.4 billion yearly.

The EU plans to reach an agreement on its Asylum and Migration Pact by February 2024. There is no sign that member states will agree where to disembark migrants and where to relocate them. These are crucial questions for Malta. Since we joined the EU 18 years ago, the other member states accepted to relocate less than 10 per cent of the over 23,000 migrants disembarked safely in Malta.

We are already doing much more than others. The French scholar Francois Heran has shown that, between 2015 and 2018, in relation to its size and resources, Malta was the country that provided most asylum (2,922) to those refugees fleeing from war and persecution.

The EU rescued over 50,000 migrants in the Mediterranean Sea between 2015 and 2019 through the naval mission Sophia. It was abandoned after a number of EU states voted against it, saying it served to attract more migrants towards Europe. In 2020, the Irini mission replaced Sophia and has not rescued any migrants in these two years, as it is tasked only with enforcing the arms embargo on Libya. A number of EU member states will stop it if it picks up any migrants.

The mainstream political discourse in EU member states is dominated by the stigmatisation of refugees and migrants and is polarising even the most diverse and tolerant societies. The majority of EU citizens vote against parties considered soft on irregular migration. Populist parties are gaining ground where the concern (real or imagined) of voters on irregular migrants are ignored by other mainstream parties.

It has become impossible to articulate an inclusive narrative and prevent the dangerous divide between those who defend the rights of refugees and migrants and those who defend the rights of citizens in receiving countries.

In the last 18 years, as we were not supported adequately by other EU states,  we have had no choice but to cooperate with the Libyan coast guard to prevent human smugglers from sending boats full of migrants to Malta.

How can Malta, the smallest EU state, on its own allow in thousands of irregular migrants when all the other EU member states are not ready to share the responsibility of relocating these mostly African irregular migrants within them? Every 1,000 irregular migrants who enter Malta are equivalent to a million entering the EU.

This year, Europe has taken in 4.4 million Ukrainians and another 365,000 asylum seekers fleeing violence in Syria and Afghanistan. Europeans think that many migrants all over the world are seeking sanctuary in Europe when, in fact, roughly 90 per cent of all refugees and asylum seekers currently reside in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America.

The majority of EU citizens vote against parties considered soft on irregular migration- Evarist Bartolo

At the moment, the total number of people forced to flee their homes due to conflicts, violence, fear of persecution and human rights violations has risen to more than 100 million.

EU member states are dealing mostly unilaterally with this complex issue. Spain, Portugal, Slovenia, Austria and Germany have been changing or are in the process of changing their immigration laws to make it easier to hire workers from non-EU countries. Programmes returning irregular migrants back to their countries of origins are being strengthened. Denmark is negotiating an agreement with Rwanda to send 1,000 asylum seekers every year to have their applications processed in the East African country.

EU member states need migrants as they have more than four million jobs waiting to be filled as there are no EU citizens to fill them because of the EU’s demographic suicide. Some of the sectors hit hardest by the labour shortage are agriculture, the construction sector, tourism and catering. So, the hardening of attitudes and restrictive migration policies towards Sub-Saharan Africans is not economic but racist.

Thousands of skilled and qualified graduates are already leaving North Africa for Europe. North Africa’s brain drain is Europe’s brain gain as it harvests the entrepreneurial and innovative energy and talents of the migrants.

If the countries of the southern shore continue to lose such talent, where are the skilled and talented people they need for their own social development and economic growth going to come from? At the same time, these migrants need to feed their families.

A win-win solution for this structural imbalance and dependency would be if Europe and Africa both took nearshoring seriously and set up regional supply and value chains for the benefit of the people of both continents.

Last year, 68 per cent of EU exports to Africa were manufactured goods while 65 per cent of goods imported to the EU from Africa were primary goods. As the EU replaces Russian energy with energy from Africa, this trade imbalance will increase.

Perpetuating these asymmetrical trade exchanges inhibits the growth of indigenous manufacturing and services sectors in Africa, needed to create the necessary jobs in this continent where 60 per cent of its 1.3 billion people are under 25.

The African Development Bank says that 12 million African youth enter the workforce each year. Only 3.1 million jobs are created, leaving vast numbers of youth unemployed. Unless these trends (compounded by the income gap between Europe and Africa, population growth in Africa, conflicts and climate change) are reversed, more young Africans will seek a better life elsewhere, regularly or irregularly.

Evarist Bartolo is a former foreign and education minister.

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