Irregular migration is not a new phenomenon for Malta. It has been a reality we have had to contend with since joining the European Union in 2004 and, in particular, since the island became a member of the borderless Schengen area, which facilitated travel among a number of European countries.

Different administrations in Malta have tried several approaches to the issue. It is evident that Labour in 2013 was elected under a new reality, following the overthrow of Gaddafi which resulted in a power vacuum in Libya – often the point of migrants’ departure.

The Labour government has also tried to strike the difficult balance between respecting basic human rights and ensuring tiny Malta is not overwhelmed.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is that rather than going away, the migration issue has become more prevalent and, to a certain extent, is starting to create social tensions. With this in mind we need to bear in mind some key points:

Firstly, many migrants are genuinely fleeing great strife and hardship in search of a better life. They often have to leave friends and family behind and pay large amounts of money to human traffickers to make the journey across the Mediterranean. Invariably, they are forced to make this trip in boats of dinghies that are unseaworthy.

When these rickety boats break down, which happens way too often, their lives are at risk especially when they get caught up in rough seas.

If this occurs in Malta’s extensive search and rescue area, our country is legally responsible for coordinating rescue and our armed forces perform this task with great dedication and commitment.

In certain cases, we also take a decision to land the rescued migrants in Malta and to process them upon arrival. This has obviously become a much more complex and laborious process since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Prime Minister Robert Abela has said, when faced with tough decisions, the government will always choose life ahead of all other considerations, even if such decisions are not necessarily popular with our public.

However, our commitment to our obligations and human rights does not mean that we should unquestioningly accept a situation where, due to our geographical location, we have become ‘Europe’s doormat’. Migration is not an issue of Malta’s making. It is a European issue that requires a coordinated European response.

Following several failed initiatives, such as its border agency Frontex launching patrols in the Mediterranean, European leaders showed signs they were finally starting to come to grips with the issue when they attended a special summit on the issue in Malta in 2015 – ‘the Valletta Summit’.

Solidarity dictates that responsibility for migrants must be shared, rather than penalising two EU members for their initiatives

An action plan was formulated aiming to address the causes of migration, enhance cooperation on legal migration, reinforce protection of displaced persons and fight migrant smuggling.

Hailing the summit as a success, then European Council president Donald Tusk had said: “What we have agreed is a crucial step in reinforcing our cooperation, we now need to get moving on implementing the action plan in partnership and solidarity.”

What has happened to that action plan? What has happened to pledges from our European partners of partnership and solidarity? What has happened to the principles that underpin the European Union?

The reality is that Malta and Italy have been largely left to handle not just the rescue of lives at risk in our seas, but also the weight of trying to find facilities to accommodate and keep growing numbers of migrants.

There is no question that migrants making this crossing do so because they want to reach mainland Europe, and solidarity dictates that responsibility for them must therefore be shared, rather than penalising two EU members for their initiatives, for adhering to their European and international obligations in impossible scenarios and for, above all, saving lives! 

While I firmly believe that Malta has an important role to play in this issue, we cannot do this alone especially in a context where migrant crossings are increasing in frequency. What for many Europeans is a headline in a newspaper is for us a daily reality and struggle despite our very best efforts, especially given our limited resources.

Knee-jerk reactions are not a solution but a postponement of the problem. We are doing our bit, and more, and practically taking difficult decisions every day.

We, however, must insist with our European colleagues on the implementation of a permanent system that ensures fairness and equality among EU member states.

We must insist that the good intentions we witnessed at the Valletta Summit actually materialise.

The current situation is putting Malta in two equally undesirable situations – that of saving lives at sea on the one hand and that of safeguarding the people in Malta in difficult situations on the other.

As the English saying goes, Malta should never be put ‘between a rock and a hard place’.  

Edward Zammit Lewis, Minister for Justice 

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