Malta Diary 9: A tragedy of human misery.
The misery begins in Spring and began last week with the arrival of a further 200 illegal immigrants from Somalia and will continue to the end of Summer as a panorama of poignant human tragedy unfolds.
During the same last week Italy reported the mass arrival of 4,000 illegal immigrants – and all of these are the mere tip of a massive iceberg that Malta, Italy, Greece and Spain have to endure annually.
Over the last six years there have been 140 illegal immigrant boat landings in Malta bringing 9000 people (including 1600 females and 380 children) to Malta’s shores from many places on the African continent but mostly Somalia and Eritrea from the east and Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal from West Africa.
Statistically this is the equivalent of 1.65 million illegal immigrants landing on British shores over the last six years with resultant multiple economic problems and in Malta’s case multifold problems of human but mostly religious incompatibility.
The source of the problem is Libya and its lengthy unpatrolled coastline of several hundreds kilometres, making it comparatively easy for undetected embarkations. In the early years there was a stream of thought that the regime of the late Colonel Gaddafi was openly backing such embarkations as a measure of his revenge on uncooperative Europe as well as his ploy to continue applying pressure on European shores.
However, since his demise not only has the flow not been staunched but it has indeed increased as a result of the turmoil that has engulfed most of the North African coastline.
Unscrupulous human traffickers harbour no qualms in “enabling” thousands of poor people risk life and limb in mainly unsuitable and unworthy sea vessels, squeezing them for many hundreds of hard-earned American dollars (as much as $US 2,000 per head) to be jam-packed into vastly overloaded boats.
Victims are conned into believing they will safely be ferried to a Mediterranean coastline (mainly Italy where they will then have access to other EU countries). The boats are then towed out of Libyan territorial waters and left to drift with the currents towards Italian shores and land mostly on the small island of Lampedusa, west of Malta.
Arrivals in Malta and Gozo are not by design or choice even though Malta is also an EU Member State but there is no option on drifting currents particularly when there is no power or steering capability on the vessels. Landed persons are grateful for safety but remain taken aback they have actually landed in Malta and not Italy.
This traffic of human misery also has a high death toll with corpses being thrown overboard and reached a peak late last Summer when 200 or so poor souls (mostly Syrians and Palestinians) were drowned when their boat capsized just south of Lampedusa.
The deaths were followed by a storm of protests and top notch EU officials were lambasted with cries of “shame” and “disgraceful” by the local people when they visited Lampedusa and Malta to investigate the deaths and attend funerals.
These arrivals have sparked heated controversy in Malta because of the added burden of a small island economy, already striving to cope with the legal arrival of hundreds of other immigrants from Eastern Europe. For example the Malta Government has just announced that of the 4,000 new jobs created last year, approximately 50% were taken by non-Maltese individuals.
Whilst there is great sympathy that illegal immigrants originate as a result of their national economic poverty and the desire for a better life, or are otherwise from war-torn areas like Somalia and Syria, there is also a source of resentment that has resulted in xenophobia and occasions of racial and religious tension.
Arrivals are placed in detention camps with resultant deprivation during the screening process to determine the asylum seekers from the others and the screening of others for criminal elements, a complex business because many arrive without any formal documentation and their nationality and background has to be screened. Riots against the police authorities and the military are frequent in these camps.
Those not placed in detention drift into the exploitation of poorly-paid jobs, normally road sweepers, rubbish collection and on perilous building sites where they are a source of cheap labour which the Government is planning to legislate against. Some have not experienced liberally available alcohol previously and this in turn invariably leads to criminality.
Recent polls have shown that over 80% of the populations of Malta and Gozo are bitterly chagrined against the EU because they feel it is not doing anything to help alleviate the situation and interpret this as a message that this is “Malta’s problem” and Malta must “deal with it”.
Matters came to a head last year when Malta’s newly-elected Prime Minister Dr Joseph Muscat threatened to start turning back these invasions unless the EU acted. This caused a storm at the time but resulted in Malta, Italy and Greece taking a joint stand in calling for Frontex Patrols over the Libyan coastline.
The Maltese are further annoyed because there is no commitment by other EU Member States to absorb these arrivals into their own countries and indeed only a trickle of arrivals have been absorbed into the European mainland. The United States and Switzerland have proved more cooperative but again, the absorption rate is small.
Spring is in the air and Summer is on the way … but Malta and Gozo await with trepidation for the toll of human misery to continue. For humane reasons these arrivals cannot be turned away, but from an economic point of view there is a limit as to how much Malta can cope with. This has become the annual conundrum.