Robert Abela on Sunday underlined the need for a solution to the Mediterranean migration issue, days after hundreds of migrants were feared drowned off Greece, and a week after Malta abstained from the latest EU draft deal on the distribution of migrants.

Abela told a One Radio interviewer that the government's overriding principle is to save lives, even if it may resist the arrival of illegal immigrants.

“There are lives being lost out at sea which we have no idea about. When we know about them, our sacrosanct principle is to save lives. While we might resist arrivals, we want to safeguard lives as much as possible," he said.

Hundreds of people are feared to have died last week when a rusty trawler packed with migrants capsized off Greece’s Peloponnese peninsula. At least 78 have been confirmed dead. 

“This (immigration issue) is not just a Malta or Italy problem. We, along with other EU countries need to come up with solutions to combat the status quo,” Abela said. 

Earlier this month Malta abstained from a vote on a new EU asylum and migration pact because it viewed the proposal as not offering it the peace of mind that it would find support when it needed assistance.

Abela said while the government may at times resist the arrival of immigrants, but it is the government’s principle to safeguard lives. 

“What happened in Greece is a reality and in the past 20 years we have had a status quo of deaths in the Mediterranean, and unfortunately many have swept the issue under the carpet and pretended it does not exist,” he said.

Abela said traffickers were taking advantage of the desperation and innocence of people wanting to flee for a better life and this abuse added pressure on countries like Malta and Italy. 

“We need to work on policies to avoid more deaths at sea. There are solutions we can take on to fight traffickers. But this is not a fight for Malta or Italy alone. Countries outside of Europe that have an interest in Libya and Tunisia should also take on responsibility.”

He said one of the keys to solve illegal migration was to deter departures from North African ports. 

Countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt must also be provided with the necessary incentives and aid to fight human trafficking happening there, he said.

“We know Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia are also victims of migration. We need to offer hope, opportunity and investment for people to live there too,” he said. 

“If there are improved economic hopes in those countries, then fewer people will leave.”

He said while in recent months Malta did not face the pressures of the arrival of migrants, one episode could change everything.

Referring to political and economic turmoil in Tunisia he warned that if things deteriorated there, the Mediterranean could see a mass migration movement. 

“We cannot continue to sit and discuss what our visions are. I don’t want to see hundreds lose their lives, it brings me to tears because the solutions to control this issue exist.”

New interconnector by 2026

Abela spoke about the strong relations between Malta and Italy, his talks last week with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and referred to plans for a second interconnector between Malta and Italy, saying it would be implemented through EU funds, and should be commissioned by 2026. 

Abela also addressed the recent statistics on those who are at risk of poverty.

According to the NSO, one in three people over the age of 65 is at risk of poverty or social exclusion. 

Abela said that the number of people at risk of poverty had decreased. 

Before 2013, 25 per cent of Maltese families could not afford to have an unexpected financial expense, he said.

"Today, that figure has dropped to 15 per cent, less than half of the European average of 32 per cent."  

"Does that mean we can rest and leave things as they stand? Of course not, this gives us more motivation to address the remaining 15 per cent."

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