Malta and Cyprus share so many common ties; our Mediterranean history and heritage; our proud descent from ancient civilizations that have shaped today’s western values; a common outlook and fierce independence; republics within the British Commonwealth; members of the European Union. We are natural allies and friends.
It is, therefore, a great pleasure to be here in Cyprus to address you on Malta’s illegal immigration problems.
Migration poses one of the key challenges of the twenty-first century. Its global, economic and social repercussions affect the countries from which migrants migrate, the countries to which they migrate and, of course, the migrants themselves.
For Malta it is, I dare say, probably the most important social and cultural challenge it has faced for a very long time. I am delighted therefore to be invited to speak to you about the government’s policy for dealing with irregular immigration.
I propose to do this in two parts. First, I shall speak about Malta’s policy on irregular immigration in the international context since foreign policy and domestic policy on this subject are inextricably linked. The one impinges on the other. Secondly, I shall go on to talk about Malta’s policy domestically – our objectives, our efforts to cope with a humanitarian problem not of our making.
Migration is a world-wide phenomenon. It is a human tragedy on a global scale. Human rights violations, uncertainty and instability brought about by fragile economies, inequitable distribution of wealth and resources, religious extremism, political repression, violent conflicts and natural disasters, as well as a desire to achieve a better economic standard and quality of life, will continue to displace millions from their homes.
Many of those who have been displaced will resort to illegal means of gaining access to other States in their search for security. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that around a quarter of the world’s displaced persons are people of African origin who are either seeking to escape persecution or are looking for a better economic future in Europe. The problems touch us all in one way or another.
They show no signs of abating. On the contrary, they appear to be on the increase.
For Malta, the smallest and most densely populated country in the European Union and one of the most densely and built up in the world – lying at the cross-roads of the Mediterranean between North Africa and southern Europe – illegal immigration poses challenges of the most serious magnitude.
The arrival of just one illegal immigrant into Malta is equivalent relative to Malta’s population size to, for example, the arrival of 140 illegal immigrants into Italy, 150 illegal immigrants into France or the United Kingdom and 205 into German. Since 2002 over eight thousand irregular immigrants have landed in Malta. This is the equivalent over the same period of over 1.2 million reaching the United Kingdom or almost 1.65 million entering Germany.
These figures illustrate starkly the striking socio-economic challenges facing Malta as a direct consequence of this tragic and harrowing international phenomenon. It is a problem which confronts the whole of the European Union in one way or another. It is an issue which will face us all for years to come.
Geography has placed Malta at the southernmost tip of the European Union. When it comes to dealing with the heavy northward migration of illegal immigrants from Africa through the central Mediterranean we are inevitably in the front line. This geographical position is further exacerbated because –like Cyprus we have absolutely no hinterland. When an immigrant is found in the Canary Islands, he can go to Spain. If an immigrant lands in Lampedusa, he can be taken to Italy. And both are part of the great mainland of Europe.
The Maltese archipelago is only 316 square kilometers in size. Yet its population consists of over 400,000 people, making it easily the most densely populated country in Europe. The second highest is the Netherlands at about quarter of our population density. The unparalleled density of Malta’s population, its small size, its hitherto homogeneous national make-up and, unlike most of our European partners, its inexperience of a multi-cultural or a multi-racial society add a special dimension to the problem which requires the most careful handling. Time and care are needed to absorb the new situation in a sensible manner and to adjust to it.
Malta recognizes its international and moral responsibilities to provide asylum or protected humanitarian status to those who genuinely need it. It has been generous, just and humane in its response. Indeed, more than half of those illegal immigrants who have landed in Malta have been granted refugee or protected humanitarian status – the highest rate of acceptance in the European Union and probably anywhere in the world.
But the potential strains on Malta’s social fabric, on the labour market, on its health, employment and social services and on its internal security and public order cannot be under-estimated. The consequences for social and cultural cohesion if the present pressures are not mitigated are, in our judgment, bleak. While we are prepared to shoulder our share of responsibility, we cannot do so effectively alone. It should be – indeed, we hope it is – a shared responsibility with the rest of our European Union friends.
I appreciate only too well that these are issues you also may be having to grapple with. While the individual impact of this tragic international phenomenon on each of us may vary slightly according to our own circumstances, we are, I believe, united in our determination that it calls for a concerted response. We cannot on our own hope to deal with the causes and effects of a problem which affects millions in so many different countries and whose social, economic and historical causes are so deep-seated.
It calls, we believe, for a coordinated and unified response from all the countries involved, and our government’s policy in the international context is therefore firmly directed to this end. No country can on its own hope to deal with the causes and effects of a problem which affects millions in so many different countries and whose social, economic and historical causes are so deep-seated.
We therefore firmly believe that a holistic approach should be adopted internationally which addresses the countries of origin from which irregular immigrants depart, the countries of transit through which they pass (in our case chiefly Libya) and their destination countries.
Our policy is to advocate and work for the adoption of a focused and unified approach to irregular immigration. And we press this policy at every opportunity whether in the United Nations, the European Union or the various Mediterranean fora which Malta attends.
Internationally, there are five separate elements to our policy. These can be broadly defined as, first, the need for comprehensive arrangements for the return, re-admission and re-integration of irregular immigrants to their countries of origin. There must be a willingness on all sides to tackle the issue at its source. Second, the need for improvements to the efficiency and effectiveness of border management in countries of origin and of transit. Third, and directly related to the second, the elimination of human smuggling and trafficking. Fourth, the need for improvements to the management of irregular immigrants by transit countries. And fifth, the better management, reception and integration of migrants in destination countries if it can be shown that they have genuine cause to migrate and, importantly, the destination country wishes to receive them.
While it is easy enough to define broadly these key areas for action, it is, as ever, more difficult to decide what actions actually need to be taken in detail to procedure real remedies on the ground. But it is our policy to press for a number of specific actions to be adopted as the necessary first steps in the process of devising a holistic and integrated approach to illegal immigration.
For example, as we saw in the Africa-EU summit a year ago, we press for a regular and constructive dialogue between countries of origin and destination countries to strengthen cooperation and to identify common solutions. We believe most strongly that the generous allocation of financial aid and support must be encouraged. It lies, indeed, at the very heart of the humanitarian problem. But we also see no reason why this aid should not be tied to returns and re-admissions as an incentive to closer cooperation.
As to the need for the strenuous elimination of human smuggling and trafficking, we seek ways of closer security cooperation between destination countries, transit countries and the countries of origin to eradicate these criminal and inhumane operations. Malta is working hard – together with other EU countries – to obtain Libya’s cooperation in discouraging human traffickers who exploit thousands of people annually and place them under life-threatening conditions in open boats often in treacherous seas. Illegal immigration is simply not acceptable to destination countries, like Malta, which are placed in the invidious position of having to manage a human tragedy not of their making.
We work internationally for the better integration of migrants in destination countries through the adoption of a long-term, sustainable – I stress sustainable – migration management approach, as well as through the establishment of a regular dialogue on migration policy between countries of destination of origin and transit most affected.
We firmly believe that detailed action on an international scale increasingly needs to be taken in a determined and coordinated manner globally if constructive solutions are to be implemented. All our work in international fora is therefore directed to these ends. Our membership of the European Union has given us a bigger voice and an opportunity to share the burden with others.
Nevertheless, we feel that there is more that the EU can do to help us to meet the burdens arising from irregular immigration. If I may just mention three. There are others, but I shall just focus on the three most important ones from Malta’s point of view.
First, there is an urgent need to revise the Dublin II Convention. As you probably know, this obliges the country which first receives an asylum seeker to handle his case and to be obliged to deal with its outcome whatever that may be. This unfairly penalises Malta which is front-line state and, unlike virtually no other country in Europe – Cyprus excepted! – has no hinterland to absorb those who come here or into which they can move on. We wish to see immediate changes to Dublin II Convention pending the completion of its full-scale revision as recommended by the European Parliament a year ago. These changes should allow for greater flexibility in the way it is applied, based on an equitable mechanism allowing a quota of those landing in Malta to be processed by other nations in the EU. Malta is not averse to bearing its share of the burden, but the present arrangements place a disproportionate load on our limited resources. We hope the EU study on migration policy will produce the necessary results and will lead to the changes we seek.
Secondly, we wish to see the continued deployment of a fully operational Mediterranean Coastal Patrols Network under FRONTEX to police the front-line – Europe’s front line – in the area just outside Libya’s territorial waters to the south of Malta. While recognising fully Libya’s own problems, we hope that it will increasingly agree to cooperate in such an operation. We believe that it is as much in Libya’s interests as Malta’s to ensure that those who are engaging in criminal human trafficking and smuggling should be interdicted, discouraged and deterred from carrying out their illegal trade in human beings. We also believe that this is what Libya itself would wish for despite the difficulties it has in securing its long and porous borders.
Thirdly, we wish to see a greater willingness by our EU partners to take a number – no matter how small – of those who have been granted asylum or protected status in Malta for resettlement in their own countries. Two or three nations have done so already. But if all EU countries were willing to commit themselves to taking just 30 refugees each a year from Malta our problem would be greatly reduced.
We must, I believe, as a Union, demonstrate that burden-sharing is not simply empty rhetoric, but that it has substance and meaning. Irregular or illegal immigration into our countries, which poses a common threat and common problems for every member, is an opportunity for us to demonstrate a unified approach. It is an opportunity for governments to connect with the concerns of our citizens which we should seize.
Given this policy approach internationally, how does the government deal with the issue domestically? Malta is inevitably a participant in the process of globalisation. It cannot escape it. We accept that we will continue to experience migratory flows for several more years to come, possibly for another generation.
What are our policy objectives? How do we deal with the realities raised by domestic concerns? How do we balance the need for humanity and compassion with the genuine worries of our own people? These are the issues that confront government – any government – as current events in every country in Europe have shown.
The government’s policy is driven by five over-riding objectives. First, to ensure that the ultimate national interest in safeguarded, including enhanced security measures and border control. Second, that there is fair, just and humane treatment or irregular immigrants. Third, that standard procedures and practices are established for dealing with asylum seekers. Fourth, that we encourage the social inclusion of asylum seekers and the subsequent integration of those eligible for refugee status. And fifth, that the orderly removal of irregular immigrants who are ineligible for refugee or protected humanitarian status is implemented expeditiously, effectively and in a humane manner.
But there is a caveat which needs to be made. It is one from which no government, whether rich, poor, or middling rich, is immune. This concerns resources. The actions which we take to meet the policy objectives I have just outlined are inevitably constrained by the limited human and financial resources available. It is none-the-less our policy to take every practicable step possible, within the resources allocated, to meet all our obligations and responsibilities. Although there may be occasional gaps between our good intentions and their implementation, we are determined to work hard to implement the policy objectives I have just set out. We are working extremely hard to put in place the organizational structures and infrastructure to deal with the problem – the provision of adequate Closed and Open Accommodation Centres, the processing of requests for asylum in an expeditious and humane manner, a fair and open Appeals procedure and efforts to integrate those who stay here. But there is, I accept, still more for us to do.
To sum up, therefore, I have attempted to describe the policy which Malta follows, both internationally and domestically, to deal with the huge challenges posed by irregular immigration in a small, densely populated country with limited human and financial resources. The over-riding objective of our national policy is to fulfill our moral, international, legal and humanitarian obligations as a society towards those who are worse off than ourselves, while ensuring that the government’s paramount duty to safeguard the best interests of its own people is assured.