The Malta Independent 12 July 2024, Friday
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From overcrowded facilities to floating prisons, Malta’s current struggle with migration

Karl Azzopardi Sunday, 14 June 2020, 10:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

Malta’s strategic position in the Mediterranean makes it an ideal Port of Safety for thousands of migrants crossing over from North Africa to Europe.

Because of its size, however, Malta struggles to find space to house these individuals, and the lack of contribution from other EU member states on this issue has done nothing but added to this pressure.

This year, things got even more complicated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which led many countries, including Malta, to shut their ports. At the same time, migrant crossings continued.

In light of this, the Maltese government has taken some though, and at times questionable, decisions that have been a subject of controversy among local and foreign NGOs, activists and the general public.


First quarter: Influx of migrants and facilities reaching full capacity

The migration situation in Malta started the year with a literal bang as protests erupted at the Safi Detention Centre and Marsa Open Centre in the first week of January.

On 7 January, migrants at the Safi Detention Centre started a protest demanding freedom, resulting in the arrest of 24 individuals. Less than 24 hours later, a fire was reported at the Marsa Open Centre after some residents started rioting in the main dormitory. 20 migrants suspected to have started the fire were detained and taken to court.

The reason behind these protests was not revealed but it has been widely reported that the conditions in which migrants live in at these centres are unhygienic and inhumane, as the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights’ Children in Migration report for the year 2019 shows.

At the end of February, Prime Minister Robert Abela held a meeting with the European Commissioner of Migration and Home Affairs Ylva Johansson, wherein Abela pressed on Malta’s struggle with migration and the lack of solidarity from other EU member states.

By then, more than 1,000 migrants had arrived in Malta, with new migrant boats being reported in Malta’s Search and Rescue zone on an almost weekly basis; a worrying number when compared to the total of 3,400 migrants who came to Malta throughout the whole of 2019.

The EU Commissioner shared Abela’s concern, saying that this is what prompted her visits to numerous member states with the aim of rebuilding trust between them and discuss a way forward.

Nonetheless, no developments were reported in this regard as the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Europe towards the end of the first quarter, causing an overpowering crisis that did nothing but cause more issues to the migration situation in Malta.


Second quarter: Closed ports and floating prisons

At the beginning of April, during the early stages of COVID-19 in Malta, the government released a statement in which it said that it can no longer guarantee the disembarkation of migrants since the Health Superintendent declared a public health emergency. This decision resulted in a number of migrant boats being left between sea and sky for days on end as NGOs and activists incessantly called for the Maltese authorities to take action and save them.

During this turbulent period, Foreign Affairs Minister Evarist Bartolo called for the EU to launch a humanitarian mission in Libya and give the required assistance to migrants, thus incentivising them to stay there rather than risk the perils of sea travel.

MEPs Miriam Dalli and Alfred Sant also appealed for the EU to provide concrete solutions to support Malta, which had since then closed off its ports as a way of reducing chances of imported Coronavirus cases at the end of April.

In light of this measure, the government chartered four tourist boats in order to save migrant boats detected within Malta’s S&R zone without having them disembark on our island. Unsurprisingly, this did not go down well with NGOs and activists, who condemned the use of what became to be known as ‘illegal floating prisons.’

However, the government asserted that it will not be taking in these migrants until the EU takes action, so much so that Minister Bartolo said that he would consider resigning unless a proper solution was found.

This issue lasted throughout the month of May, at the end of which Prime Minister Robert Abela paid an official visit to Libya in order to strengthen ties between the two countries, particulary in the struggle against migration. The result was a Memorandum of Understanding wherein Malta and Libya agreed to set up a coordination unit in each country to assist in operations against illegal migration. 

After five difficult weeks at sea, the 425 migrants on board the chartered vessels were allowed to disembark in our ports during the first week of June, despite the PM announcing that ports will reopen on 1 July. The decision was taken after a number of migrants on one of the vessels stole knives and threatened to explode gas cylinders. Those actions are currently under investigation.

This decision was praised by the EU Council, which had insisted the ships should be allowed inside our ports, yet, the government made it clear that Malta cannot be left to deal with this influx alone.

Yesterday, the European Commission confirmed that four EU member states – Germany, France, Luxembourg and Portugal – have offered a helping hand in relocating the recently disembarked migrants.

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