The government's repatriation policy of illegal immigrants was fundamental, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi told Parliament yesterday.

Concluding a two-day discussion on illegal immigration, Dr Gonzi remarked that on Monday, Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat had mentioned that 12,000 immigrants had entered Malta over the past 10 years, and that 5,200 were still here. Such figures proved that work was being done to control and repatriate.

But Dr Muscat had not mentioned repatriation during his speech; and Dr Gonzi suggested that this should be point number 21 in addition to the 20-point plan presented by Dr Muscat. Malta, he said, had repatriated more migrants than some of its neighbouring countries with larger resources.

Dr Gonzi said that it was good to hear the opposition say this was not a political issue, but this was very different to the time they accused the government of omertà. This was both incorrect and unfair. The government had nothing to hide but, rather, it wanted the opposition to be informed.

It was Malta that had put illegal immigration on the EU agenda, even though other countries had also experienced the problem. Under the French Presidency, Malta had achieved something it had long been working for - the immigration pact.

The Prime Minister said it was understandable that people were worried and the government had to be in touch with reality.

Research showed that the problem was very real, and had to be dealt with seriously, keeping in mind values and principles so characteristic of Malta.

The government was committed to finding a solution that was realistic, rather than populist.

Two points had to be considered in trying to find a solution: that it respected these people, while bearing in mind that this is a small, densely-populated island.

In fact the pact contained a specifically-written clause for a country which was so hard hit by immigration that it necessitated interventions.

Dr Gonzi praised both the AFM personnel and the police, especially those who risked their lives at sea to save others. This time last year, the government had improved the conditions for AFM personnel.

Dr Muscat could well have included a number of other points in his speech. One of these could have been the government's long-term political wisdom that understood its democratic partners. Such partnerships allowed Malta to do what it had done on Monday (refusing migrants who had been picked up near Lampedusa) according to international maritime rules.

Malta must be very watchful on what happened in international maritime fora. Efforts were afoot to change international rules so that rescued immigrants would be dropped off in the country responsible for the search-and-rescue area involved. It was important that Malta stand up to such efforts to change international maritime responsibilities and conventions. By all means Malta should make its case but in an adequate and dignified manner. The government was rightly proud of winning its battles with wisdom and getting results.

Dr Gonzi said Malta's membership of the EU permitted sharing other countries' means of transport for repatriation of immigrants refused refugee or protected status. Such aspects were included in the Immigration and Asylum Pact, which also permitted concrete help in analysing arriving immigrants.

He disagreed with Opposition Home Affairs spokesman Michael Falzon that the advent of Frontex had only served to push would-be immigrants into Malta's maritime corridors, saying it was not right to make such charges.

Dr Gonzi announced that on Monday the Committee of Civil Liberties, Justice and Internal Affairs of the European Parliament had concluded a Bill proposing a new instrument of specific rules to make countries participate in burden sharing. The next step would be to develop the system to make it work, and Malta would keep up its pressure to make this happen. (See full report on page 3).

Dr Gonzi said that notwithstanding his comments, there were indeed points of agreement between the two sides of the House, such as on the admissions policy. When implemented, this would need more centres to separate immigrants according to various criteria, because even solutions could beget new problems. Every effort would be made in this respect, but one could not expect perfection and all-round satisfaction.

Malta had its limits, born of its specific circumstances. On the opposition's proposal to set up an ad hoc parliamentary committee on illegal immigration, the Prime Minister said he thought the House Social Affairs Committee was good and functionable in this context. Some NGOs had already made presentations to the committee on illegal immigration, and the topic would continue to be discussed in that committee.

The Dublin II agreement, which among other things laid down that immigrants should be relocated in Malta if they were found to have left from here, was being discussed at EU level, and Malta was making its own stand.

Dr Gonzi agreed with the opposition on the need of an EU policy on Africa. The long-term solution to the phenomenon of illegal immigration lay only in giving the continent development opportunities. In this respect the Leader of the Opposition should also have included Malta's position at WHO, UN and EU levels on world commerce.

Concluding, Dr Gonzi said he appreciated that the issue of illegal immigration was worrisome, but it was good that there were areas of agreement between government and opposition, even on how to help refugees be more productive after being given their status. What had not come out in the discussion was the repatriation policy, which for the government was fundamental.

The two sides also agreed on the stands taken by Malta in EU and other international fora, including on IMO legislation. The discussion had served to clear areas of agreement and otherwise, and he was looking forward to continuing the exchange of views.

At the end of the Prime Minister's speech, Dr Falzon clarified that he had not said Frontex had pushed illegal immigrants to Maltese shores, but it was a fact that the number of illegal immigrants had increased in spite of Frontex patrols. (Dr Falzon's speech will be reported tomorrow)

Former Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg said that only some 30/40 illegal immigrants had landed in Malta before 2002. It was only after that year that there were larger groups, always following the same pattern.

Malta was the only place in Europe that had an automatic detention policy for those entering Malta illegally. This, Malta did in the national interest. But children and their parents were no longer held in detention centres.

Dr Borg said the government had the toughest immigration policy of all EU states. Malta had held fast even against international press criticism and when it faced false charges of not going out to help distressed boatloads.

Malta's attitude had always followed very simple guidelines: the responsibility of helping people in distress fell on the nearest vessel, and they must be brought ashore in the country closest to where they had been picked up.

Malta had used its veto power in cases which went against its interests, both in decisions that required unanimity and those that required a qualified majority, and had accepted no new onuses. It had said no even to the prospects of allowing long residence, and the relevant directive had not passed. Neither had Malta accepted the notion of releasing immigrants after six months in detention.

Dr Borg asked what should be done if Malta adopted any quota above which it did not accept, protect or help. It was not as if Malta was inviting illegal immigrants; it simply intervened in cases of distress at sea, and had been criticised for it.

Malta could not stop boats simply passing through, but when it came to distress in Malta's search-and-rescue area, which was much bigger than its territorial waters, it had no choice but to intervene and bring the distressed boat ashore.

Actually there was already a certain amount of burden sharing going on. It was better to have an agreed system of burden sharing among the greatest number of countries possible, than for Malta to have to take the burden on its own.

People who risked their lives would not mind risking it again to go on to their intended destination. Indeed, the increased mobility of such people was one among several solutions in Malta's best interests. When the US had agreed to take a good number of immigrants it had specified that they must have refugee or protected status.

The EU's recent asylum and immigration deal was not about rejected asylum seekers. Dr Borg said Malta was dealing with sovereign states both in and outside the EU. If Malta expected each country to take a quota, it would be of protected persons, and finally up to the country involved; this was why the system was termed "voluntary".

The main difference from Malta knocking on the doors of other countries was that the European Commission was now obliged to put pressure on member states besides the pressure from Malta, which would continue. It would be an illusion if Malta expected sovereign states to obey what it said. Malta must be more realistic on proposals of how to proceed, even though some of those proposals could be acted on, concluded Dr Borg.

Justice and Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici said that it would be a serious mistake for Malta to adopt some of the proposals put forward by Dr Muscat.

He said one could not establish a quota of migrants which Malta could take. He asked what would happen, once the quota had been reached, if a boatload of migrants was in distress off Malta, and people were drowning.

It would also be a very serious mistake for Malta to suspend its international obligations, the minister said. Malta stood to benefit more by arguing its case in the EU and other international institutions rather than being obstinate.

Malta was being assisted by the EU on the immigration issue precisely because it was a member of the 27-nation bloc. But immigration did not start when Malta joined the EU, but two years previously. By the time Malta joined the EU, some 1,500 migrants had already come to Malta.

Suspending international obligations also meant suspending obligations under maritime conventions, and this would also adversely affect Malta's large and growing maritime industry.

Even if Malta were to suspend its international obligations, what about its moral obligations? Could it allow anyone to drown in its waters?

Nothing would change the fact that Malta was in the middle of the migratory route from North Africa to Italy. Dr Mifsud Bonnici stressed that Malta was only obliged to take migrants who actually landed here, or were rescued because they were in distress. He added that the important thing was to tackle the problem in a rational and logical way to keep the situation under control.

It was also wrong to criticise Libya over this issue, because that country too had its own immigration problems and needed assistance.

The minister welcomed the fact that the opposition agreed with the government's detention policy, and said the government was committed to retaining this policy while improving the detention centres as far as was possible in the circumstances.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said it was of great concern that Dr Muscat's speech indicated that a socialist party was veering to the right in an attempt to gain popular support. He was sure, however, that the people wanted the country to retain its dignity in the way it treated the immigrants.

The general public was not those people who had hijacked some blogs.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici urged the opposition to go deeper into the issue of immigration. Its proposals, he said, were drawn up in a hurry and ignored issues such as repatriation. But many of the proposals that were made by Dr Muscat were already being acted upon, including improving the detention centres, applying an admissions policy to the detention centres and improving security. Training for migrants had also been started.

The government, through Parliamentary Secretary Chris Said, had also launched talks on ways to help communities where open and closed centres were located.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici underlined the importance of the Immigration Pact and other arrangements such as Dublin II and the new Refugee Support Agency. Rather than suspending Malta's obligations, Malta needed to work from within to improve those areas which needed to be improved, in the national interest, he said.

Other speakers will be reported tomorrow.

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