Malta will certainly not take part in any Frontex operation this year if the rules are changed to the effect that people rescued off the sea are taken to the host nation rather than the nearest port of call, this newspaper has learned.
Speaking to this newspaper, Justice Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici said that Malta had always adopted the international rule of taking people rescued from the sea to the nearest port of call. This, he said, was common sense. “If someone is drowning, you take them to the nearest port, you do not make life more difficult by taking them on a longer journey to the mission host nation,” he said.
Dr Mifsud Bonnici was speaking in light of comments made by Frontex officials saying that they would not change their draft guidelines on migration control which stipulate that people picked up from the sea must be taken to the host nation. So far, Italy and Malta have objected.
Dr Mifsud Bonnici said: “Taking rescued people to the nearest port of call is practical and it is common sense.”
He concluded, “let us be as clear as crystal, if the rules are different from what they have been in the past, Malta will not take part in Frontex operations.”
One must put the matter into context. Frontex operations are in nature voluntary. If no nations come forward to take part in the operations, then that is it. Nothing can be done to get other countries to take part. If Malta were to be the only country to take part, it would be put in a very uncomfortable position.
It would mean that while Malta will receive proportionally big funding for maintenance, fuel and operational costs, it would be forced into bringing every single migrant who is rescued from the sea back to Malta. It is, in effect, a situation known as Hobson’s choice. The government of Malta, we are told, is of the opinion that the disadvantages of the new guidelines far outweigh the advantages. In short, a government spokesman explained, “if we decide to host the Frontex mission, we will get funding to operate, but that would mean that we would have to take in people rescued off the sea from as far away as Crete.” That, said the spokesman, simply did not make sense. He said that Malta could ill afford any more burdens. However, there is positive news. Malta is to begin to push Frontex to take a more active administrative role, such as organising repatriation flights. We have been told that such administrative duties are in Frontex’s remit, but had been put on the backburner as search and patrol missions took precedence.
It is understood that these were a success as they patrolled closer to Libya. And with Libya lies the problem. “Frontex has a list of preferences. The first is to return people to the point of departure; the second is to take them to the host nation. If Libya does not accept to take these people, as it did all last year, Malta will be lumped with them and this is unacceptable,” said the spokesperson.
The only way this could be solved, said the spokesperson, would be to have a bilateral agreement between the EU and Libya – something which looks highly unlikely.
As things stand, the guidelines have yet to be put through the EP, but if they are approved, Malta will not take part in any Frontex missions. Meanwhile, there are only some 300 people who are being detained in connection with illegal immigration. Tent City in Hal-Far and the Ta’ Kandja complex are closed while the rest of the detainees are being kept at Safi. There are some 4,500-5,000 immigrants who are living in the general population.