Malta’s handling of irregular migration in the central Mediterranean over the last few weeks has been neither dignified nor successful. As the Libyan civil war deteriorated and the weather improved, the strong possibility of a migration surge during the calmer spring had long been predicted.

But the government’s focus on the coronavirus emergency was such that when the first boatloads of fleeing asylum seekers from Libya appeared in Malta’s search-and-rescue region, the government found itself caught between the fear of losing control of the epidemic at the peak of infection and closing its ports to all arrivals, including refugees.

The policy devised to deal with the unstoppable arrival of migrants from Libya has swung between a number of attempts at obtaining EU support and sympathy, and gestures of defiance – some of which were arguably illegal under international law – designed to show Malta’s determination not to bear the migration surge towards Europe alone.

The culmination to this policy to keep irregular migrants out of Malta on grounds of controlling the COVID-19 outbreak was a plan to place all the migrants rescued into large tourist leisure boats berthed outside Malta’s territorial waters. As the asylum seekers kept arriving, the numbers grew over the space of a month until in total four such leisure boats had been hired, holding over 400 asylum seekers.

Life on the four pleasure boats designed for inland cruising, anchored during a period of storm-tossed Mediterranean Sea, each containing over one hundred young men, could not have been easy.

The civilian crew placed there to administer to their needs was in a minority. There was no security, other than fear of the open seas, keeping the migrants away from Malta.

Last week, the roof caved in on what had always seemed like an ill-thought-out plan. A number of migrants on Captain Morgan launch, Europa II, rose up and rebelled against their detention and demanded to be brought ashore. The government immediately capitulated. Prime Minister Robert Abela said he was not prepared to endanger lives.

So ended an expensive saga that should never have been embarked upon. It was a plan that failed to achieve any of its objectives.

Throughout the last few weeks of stand-off with the EU, Malta’s demands for support in relocating migrants rescued in Malta’s search- and-rescue region have been ignored. Only France, Portugal and Finland have made tentative offers of support once the migrants have been brought into the island.

Moreover, Malta’s actions have attracted wide criticism on humanitarian grounds. And, in the final indignity, it looks like the government will still have to bear the full costs of this misplaced plan and having to bring ashore the 425 migrants seeking asylum. As the COVID-19 emergency relaxes across the EU, it is time for the government to mend fences and for the European Commission to re-engage with a migration surge.

Although Malta’s self-image of a David against the European Goliath is an attractive one, it is the case that in the final analysis realpolitik prevails. Diplomacy, not hollow gestures of confrontation, are the better way forward.

Malta’s recently-signed ‘agreement’ with Libya may bear fruit but this should not come at the expense of throwing desperate people back into the lion’s den. Ultimately, it is up to the other EU states to put solidarity into practice. The long-standing issue of building a workable Common European Asylum System must go back on the EU’s agenda before another summer of tragedies kicks in.

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