The calm weather in the central Mediterranean over the past few weeks led to the arrival of irregular immigrants from Libya. According to the latest figures given by Justice Minister Chris Said, out of the 832 migrants that arrived so far this year, 712 got here in the past five weeks.
This may be the harbinger of a flood still to come. Malta could be in for a long, hot summer of migration.
The migration patterns across the central Mediterranean of the last three years have been unusual and unpredictable. The infamous Berlusconi-Gaddafi “pact” of three years ago led to an agreement that illegal migration from Libya would be controlled with Tripoli’s cooperation. For a while, these unorthodox arrangements held. Malta seemed to have been spared the huge influx of irregular migrants that had once seemed likely.
The Libyan civil war last year led to Malta fearing the worst as the country was thrown into chaos and Libyans and immigrants fled the country. But after an initial surge in the spring, those who attempted to cross into Europe did so from Tunisia, thus landing in Lampedusa, not Malta. Again, Malta was spared the thousands expected and, instead, received its average annual influx since 2002 of about 1,500 asylum-seekers.
The situation prevailing this year is again different. Although Col Gaddafi is no more, Libya remains riven by factionalism and the Transitional National Council is still struggling to establish the rule of law and to build its institutions of government. The porous borders in southern Libya are letting in migrants from sub-Saharan Africa, especially Somalia, and on the Mediterranean coast there is no naval force worthy of the name and refugees are now again taking the opportunity created by the power vacuum to flee to Europe.
Making the umpteenth call for solidarity with Malta by both EU member states and the European Commission, Dr Said told fellow ministers in Brussels late last week: “This is only the beginning of the calm-sea period in the central Mediterranean. The numbers are expected to continue to increase.”
Malta must prepare for the worst. The migrants will definitely come. We cannot be so sure about EU solidarity.
The last 10 years of irregular migration across the central Mediterranean to Europe have been a roller coaster learning experience for this tiny island. The country had to cope with almost 15,000 asylum-seekers.
Over 90 per cent of irregular arrivals have applied for protection in Malta. Almost 300 have been given refugee status, about 6,000 got some form of protected status and 5,000 or so had their cases rejected. A slow, though continuous, process of repatriation has been underway and a programme of resettlement in the United States and some countries in the EU has been established. About 3,000-4,000 Africans now form part of our community.
What happens next?
Realistically, the prospects of continuing irregular migration are never-ending. Thus, Malta must remain prepared. There is a danger of complacency following last year’s unrealised fears of a “tsunami” of immigrants. In fact, there are signs of this already.
The capacity to accommodate a fresh surge of asylum-seekers has been reduced substantially now that one of the detention centres has been taken over by the new Police Academy. Unless fresh accommodation to cope with the anticipated influx of asylum-seekers is identified – and found soon – Malta may again find itself struggling to cope.
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