The rescue of nearly 300 people who had left Libya for Europe has prompted Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to insist that Malta expects EU solidarity on immigration – and that it is ready to take all the necessary steps to be heard.
Dr Muscat held a hastily-announced news conference concerning the arrival of 291 people – 243 men and 48 women – from Libya on the night between Wednesday and Thursday, and on the occasion, he stressed that the situation could not be described as “business as usual.” The circumstances were exceptional, he said, and action was required.
The Prime Minister consistently referred to the rescued group as “illegal immigrants” – a term that had fallen out of favour in recent years, and which, in the case of those who seek asylum, is also technically incorrect – while Home Affairs Minister Manuel Mallia, who also addressed the media, used the more neutral term “irregular immigrants” instead.
Dr Muscat announced that he had called European Council president Herman van Rompuy to give him a formal notice that Malta “will be using all legitimate means at the European Council” to express its lack of satisfaction at the present arrangements, and to demand further solidarity.
He said that Malta did its duty in rescuing the people, stating at one point that national policy was to be compassionate with the weak but strong with politicians. But he also added that Malta would not leave its doors open wide and “welcome boats from Libya and elsewhere as if nothing happened.”
“Call us harsh, call us heartless, but we are not pushovers (passatur),” Dr Muscat insisted.
The prime minister dismissed suggestions that he was being alarmist about the situation, stating that he was giving a realistic account of the situation.
Mr van Rompuy has already been scheduled to visit Malta next week, and Dr Muscat confirmed that immigration will be a key topic in the discussions that will take place. He said that Mr van Rompuy appeared to be understanding of the government’s concerns, noting how he said that the arrival of 300 people was a lot for many member states when told that it was a lot for Malta.
He also insisted that in his discussions with the Council president, he was not begging for assistance, but fighting for the country’s rights, adding that although the Maltese were compassionate, they were no pushovers.
‘We’ll go as far as we need to’
The prime minister revealed that Malta had abstained from voting on the asylum package at last week’s European Council, which his party had criticised because it included no compulsory burden-sharing mechanism for asylum seekers.
Asked what steps he was considering to take to assert the government’s position, Dr Muscat said that “we’ll go as far as we need to.”
He said that he expected the EU to address the issue as it had addressed the rescue of ailing banks, stating that immigration was a European crisis and that the burden should not fall on the EU’s smallest member. He also said that Malta expected to be shown the same solidarity it had shown to countries which have received bailouts in recent years.
Dr Muscat’s rhetoric did not go down well with the Nationalist Party, which said that his statement smacked of populism.
“It is a cheap attempt to gain popularity and to appear decisive in blatant disregard of the suffering of those who arrived overnight.”
It also questioned Dr Muscat’s apparent attempt to strong-arm the EU into accepting Malta’s request for solidarity.
“If the Prime Minister thinks he will win support at European level by using threats, he has another thing coming. This approach goes against the basic premises on which the EU is built and will isolate Malta from the other EU member states,” the PN said.
This prompted a reply by the Labour Party, which insisted that the government is committed to obtain what is best for the country and to make its voice heard through legitimate means for Malta to get the assistance it needs.
It accused the PN of wanting to put spokes in the wheels in this regard.
Push-backs not ruled out
In reply to another question by the media, the prime minister said that he was not excluding push-backs of immigrants intercepted at sea, “especially” if Libya is declared to be a safe country.
The practice had been utilised by Italy, which promptly earned the condemnation of the European Court of Human Rights, which ruled that such push-backs violated human rights if people are returned to countries where they may face persecution or serious harm.
The mention of push-backs appears to have raised the concerns of the Malta office of the UN’s refugee agency, the UNHCR, which quickly issued a statement to stress that push-backs were not an option.
“The situation of asylum seekers in Libya remains an issue of grave concern. Recent reports describe a context of lawlessness and impunity, where foreign nationals from sub-Saharan Africa are at constant risk of exploitation, arrest and indefinite detention,” UNHCR Malta insisted.
“In this situation it is evident that forced return or push-back of asylum seekers to Libya is not an option, as this would constitute a breach of international law,” the Malta representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Jon Hoisaeter, said.
UNHCR Malta also pointed out that so far, the number of arrivals is lower than it was last year, and that it believed that a combination of solutions – including local integration, resettlement/relocation and the return of those not in need of international protection – will continue to be required. It pledged to support the government and other partners to address and manage the situation in a comprehensive manner.
Last month, Mr Hoisaeter had also stressed that Malta’s argument that it was too small would likely not go very far on its own: a clear definition of Malta’s own capacity and planned contribution for the coming years was also required.
Two shot while fleeing detention in Libya
In his own comments, Dr Mallia provided details on the rescue and the immigrants’ arrival, noting how seven – four men and three women – had to be taken to Mater Dei Hospital. Two of them had been shot in Libya – apparently in the process of escaping from detention – while the rest suffered various physical problems related to their journey.
The boat was first spotted to Malta’s southwest at around 2pm, and the Maltese authorities were informed of its arrival by the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre in Rome.
The injured were evacuated by helicopter, and the rest were rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta. Their boat’s motor had stopped running, and it was taking water when its occupants were evacuated: Dr Muscat pointed out that the boat sank shortly afterwards.
The vast majority of the group appear to be Eritrean, based on the accounts of those who have already been screened, Dr Mallia said.
But Dr Muscat later noted that at this point, there were conflicting stories about who the people were, as well as where they had been detained, why and by whom. Information received by the authorities suggested that they had been held by some armed faction within Libya, although other stories suggest that they had simply been detained for crossing into Libya.
As a result, he said, it was not yet clear whether the group would end up in detention centres – as is standard under Malta’s controversial policy which allows for the detention of asylum seekers for up to 12 months – or elsewhere.