Illegal immigration dominated a debate among a number of European Parliament candidates at the University this week, with some candidates taking harsh stands on the issue.

Nationalist candidate Frank Portelli said Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had clearly stated that, since European countries had exploited Africa in the past, Africans had a right to invade Europe and take back what was theirs.

Dr Portelli said Col Gaddafi had got it into his head he could turn Europe into a Muslim continent. The number of immigrant arrivals in Malta was higher than the number of births, so the word "invasion" was justified.

He said "it is not true there is poverty in Africa" but many African leaders were spending money on armaments and nuclear weapons rather than education.

Speaking about the recent spat between Italy and Malta over who should accept a group of immigrants who were rescued by a cargo vessel, Labour MEP candidate Edward Scicluna said Italy had bullied Malta. He said migration was a very complex and "permanent" problem with no single or simple solution.

He said Europe had the clout to address burden-sharing and improve development in Africa as a means to discourage immigration.

Prof. Scicluna was also adamant that the PN had exaggerated Labour leader Joseph Muscat's call for Malta to use the veto in the EU and said this would only be used in extreme situations.

Alternattiva Demokratika chairman and MEP candidate Arnold Cassola said that the "send them back" solution could only be used for those who did not have a humanitarian crisis in their countries, like Tunisia and Egypt.

With those who qualified for protection, Malta needed to encourage "responsibility-sharing". He called for a war to be waged on human traffickers and said there were Maltese involved in the chain of illegality.

He said immigrants should not be sent back to Libya because that country was not a signatory to the Geneva Human Rights Convention.

Prof. Cassola said integration was also something that had to be looked at. He mentioned a report that MEP Simon Busuttil would soon present to the EU where, among others, there were calls for integration.

He insisted Malta should push to separate the air traffic control area from its Search and Rescue (SAR) region and reduce the latter because the country lacked the resources to adequately patrol the SAR region. However, he supported the government in its recent quarrel with Italy, insisting that Malta had honoured its obligations.

The only student on the panel, the general secretary of the Youth Council of Malta, Dylan Seychell, said the issue had to be tackled first and foremost from a humanitarian perspective.

"These people should not be used as a negotiation tool," he said, adding that detention, especially when it came to minors, had to be rethought.

Nationalist MEP candidate Roberta Metsola Tedesco Triccas said immigration was a "European problem which required a European solution".

The recent visits to Malta by EU commissioners Gunther Verheugen and Jacques Barrot showed the rhetoric had started to be converted into action by the EU but Malta had to continue "knocking on other countries' doors" for more effective burden-sharing.

Ms Metsola Tedesco Triccas said Europe should be careful when it invested in development aid to Africa because much of this was being lost due to corrupt governments.

Labour MEP candidate Marlene Mizzi praised the government for standing firm against Italy. She said the migrants were poor people who should not be left to drown. However, Malta could not afford to take in more immigrants.

She said Labour had made a number of good proactive proposals to solve this problem and the use of the veto in EU institutions was a right that could be exercised in the national interest.

Azzjoni Nazzjonali candidate Malcolm Seychell said the government had swept immigration under the rug for too long.

He said the UN should send all the immigrants to a designated part of Africa because Europe could not take any more. Burden-sharing was a farce. Libya was the big problem and Malta and Italy should join forces to put pressure on that country, rather than on each other.

John Zammit of the Alleanza Liberali said illegal immigrants should be kept in detention for as long as possible.

Nationalist candidate Alan Deidun, who was not invited because his party was only allowed to send two representatives, showed up saying he had instructions from the PN to attend. He said there should be more development aid to Africa in order to reduce the need for migration to Europe.

The event was organised by student organisation Aegee but was dominated by the MEP candidates, with only a few interventions from students.

cperegin@timesofmalta.com

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