Malta is facing an “enormous” immigration crisis which surpasses the one being seen in Italy, according to Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi.

He was reacting to comments made last week by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, who downplayed the issue and rejected Malta’s calls to trigger an EU-wide mechanism of obligatory solidarity.

Dr Gonzi told The Times the arrivals of “illegal immigrants” had to be assessed as a proportion of a country’s population.

Malta received 820 sub-Saharan Africans in 24 hours, he pointed out, describing the arrivals as a “red light” which should have triggered the mechanism immediately.

“This may seem like a small number for other countries but for us it is enormous.”

Italy has received almost 20,000 migrants since the beginning of the year. But while most of these landed on the tiny island of Lampedusa, overwhelming its population, the Italian government has begun shipping large numbers of them to mainland Italy.

Comparing migrant arrivals as a proportion of the population, Italy, which has a population of more than 60 million people, would have to see some 120,000 people reach their shores to be at a par with Malta, which received 800.

Stopping short of calling Ms Malmström insensitive, Dr Gonzi said the European Commission was well aware of the situation in Libya and the massive potential for a biblical exodus of migrants. But she was “still not realising” that the problem in Malta was different from that anywhere else.

“Naturally,” he added, “one has to see whether the wave (of migrants) will keep up the same rhythm.” But this did not mean the EU should wait until Malta was inundated and it was “too late”.

Malta needs to persuade sceptics

The EU, he said, was morally obliged to register this fact and intervene.

Malta will continue trying to persuade sceptics of the need to activate the EU emergency mechanism ahead of a meeting of the Home Affairs Ministerial Council to be held on April 11.

The mechanism would provide irregular immigrants with temporary protection status of up to two years allowing them to be relocated to other member states. It has been in place since 2001 but can only be activated in exceptional circumstances that lead to a mass influx of displaced people.

Meanwhile, reports yesterday emerged of about 70 Africans being washed ashore near Tripoli and buried before being identified after unsuccessfully trying to flee the violence in Libya.

The incident was revealed by a number of news agencies which quoted Malta’s Jesuit Refugee Service director Joseph Cassar as having given confirmation.

However, when contacted, Fr Cassar said he had made it very clear to the news agencies that he could not “independently confirm” the information, even though it tallies with reports of a dinghy carrying 68 immigrants on board which is said to have left Libya but never reached Italy or Malta.

“I heard it from a source who is usually credible,” Fr Cassar said.

According to his information, the incident occurred on Thursday, when dozens of bodies were seen being retrieved by the shore, close to Tripoli.

They were then buried, most likely by the Libyan authorities, before they could be identified.

“All we know is that they were Africans,” Fr Cassar added, stressing that the information was not given to him by the Eritreans who arrived in Malta over the past week but by sources in Libya.

He added that at least two boats are known to have left Libya but have not yet reached Italy or Malta: the dinghy and a larger boat carrying more than 300.

Relatives of those said to be on the boats said they left Libya more than a week ago.

Meanwhile, a third boat overloaded with “documented refugees” is said to have returned to Libya after it began taking in water.

“We don’t know what happened to them when they got back. What we do know is that they will have nothing to return to,” Fr Cassar added, pointing out that migrants have had to pay their life-savings – some up to $2,000 – for their treacherous journey.

Fr Cassar added that the wind conditions of the past few days made it difficult for boats to reach their destinations.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us