The Malta Independent 21 April 2019, Sunday

Irregular migration: Italian EU presidency the next best thing for Malta

Malta Independent Sunday, 6 July 2014, 10:51 Last update: about 6 years ago



Although Malta has not yet seen any significant turmoil on the irregular migration front so far this summer, there has certainly been no let up as far as our neighbour Italy is concerned.

So far this year, Italy has seen the arrival of over 60,000 migrants claiming asylum, numbers that are bound to rise as summer’s fair weather continues. And when that happens, Malta may very well find itself once again smack in the middle of this annually recurring human tragedy. As such, and despite the current lull as far as Malta is concerned, this is no time for complacency.

The good news is that with Italy having assumed the presidency of the Council of the European Union this week, one can expect a genuine thrust to be applied to the long-neglected and too often ignored issue of irregular migration. This, for Malta and as far as the issue of irregular migration is concerned, is the next best thing to Malta itself holding the EU presidency.

Italy will, however, only have six months in which to press the issue – an issue that is, more often than not, met with a certain amount of apathy from many countries in northern and central Europe. But with its significant clout, Italy may just be able to turn the tables on this long-standing dire situation.

Plus, with its Mare Nostrum project having virtually taken control of the situation in the central Mediterranean, Italy has shown its determination to ensure that there are no more repeats of the double Lampedusa tragedies last October, and in the process it has also earned itself no small amount of kudos in European circles.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso thanked Italy on Friday for ‘saving thousands of lives in the Mediterranean’ through its Mare Nostrum searchand-rescue operations. That is all well and good but it is now high time that the EU itself takes ownership of Mare Nostrum, as Italy and Malta have been jointly lobbying in favour of.

It is, after all, only when the whole of the EU bands together to solve what is a truly pan-European issue that real and tangible results will be forthcoming.

Barroso told the Italian Senate on Friday that the Commission had long sought greater cooperation on irregular migration since the phenomenon was a European issue and not an issue of only the frontier EU states such as Malta and Italy or Greece and Spain.

Putting a human face on the ongoing tragedies in the Mediterranean, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi remarked: “It is unacceptable that a boat filled with children is allowed to sink only because it is not clear who’s responsible for it. In these very hours, there are record numbers of women, men and children arriving on our shores, 96 per cent from Libya.” Calling for an EU-wide policy on irregular migration, he pointed out that the Mediterranean “is not Italy’s sea, it is Europe’s border. Or, as I would prefer to call it, its heart”.

On Friday, in another positive sign of things to come, Italy called for the UN’s refugee agency to help the newly elected Libyan government deal with the huge flow of immigrants and asylum seekers setting off from its coasts for Europe.

Italy’s number of migrant arrivals this year has now bettered the record 63,000 set in 2011 during the Arab Spring uprisings, and Italy has been hit by several boat tragedies, with at least 125 people dying during crossings this week alone.

Renzi said Italy aims to help the Libyan authorities allow the UNHCR to manage the flow of men and women in Libya, and to identify which of them are asylum seekers. This in itself would help both Italy and Malta almost immeasurably, and it was also an idea floated years back by former home affairs minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici. The UNHCR had endorsed the concept but the intricacies, for lack of a better word, of the former Gaddafi regime complicated matters no end.

The concept of setting up a UNHCR frontline office in Libya, which would effectively assess asylum seekers’ claims before they set sail on rickety boats on the perilous Mediterranean crossing, would be an immensely positive development in what is an otherwise completely Wild West scenario. Those who have had their asylum requests approved would be distributed by the UNHCR across Europe, instead of making their way to Malta and Italy, while failed asylum seekers could be repatriated to their countries of origin straight from Libya.

As matters stand, the Italian EU presidency has started off on an extremely positive note and matters will hopefully progress with a frontier state at the helm of the EU. The next time that will happen, after all, will be in January 2017 when Malta has its own six-month presidency.

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