• Last month, Valletta received international criticism for leaving 27 shipwrecked Africans hanging onto tuna nets (Photo: AFM)

Malta turning into 'detention centre', warns minister

06.07.07 @ 17:43

  1. By Lucia Kubosova

MALTA - Maltese authorities say they face an increase in racist sentiment among the country's population, with inflows of illegal immigrants turning the island into a large-scale "detention centre."

According to the Maltese government, the island of 400,000 inhabitants and 316 square km - the highest population density in the EU - received 1,800 immigrants last year.

With 750 more arrivals this year, the immigrant community now numbers around 3,000.

"We have always prided ourselves on being a very hospitable nation, but unfortunately we have seen the beginning of racism over the past three years or so," Cristina Dolores, the country's family and social affairs minister, told EUobserver.

She said the Maltese government is struggling to send a message of tolerance to their citizens but she admitted she herself felt "sympathy" for some of their concerns.

"It is the growing numbers of people in one area that is worrying. In a small country like Malta this leads to fears that there is not enough housing - which is true - or that we don't have enough jobs and that people coming from outside will encroach on something seen as belonging to the locals."

"Moreover, most of these people don't want to stay in Malta. They just wait to proceed further in Europe so it is hard for us to do something for them and integrate them in our country."

On arrival most immigrants are placed in one of six closed detention centres - which have faced international condemnation for harsh living conditions - where they can spend up to 18 months.

All closed detention centres accommodate people in tents, due to a "lack of adequate and available buildings," according to the government. The situation is likely to continue in the future.

Later many are transferred to open centres with less stringent conditions.

The Maltese government is angry that it is forced to deal with what it considers an EU-wide problem.

"We're being left on our own for far too long. I'm not talking only about funds but resettlement – family reunification," said Mrs Dolores criticising the lack of EU help.

Under current EU rules, the country that takes in the migrants has to take care of them and prevent them moving elsewhere in the EU.

Mrs Dolores claims these rules are slowly turning Malta into "a macro closed detention centre where people are being obliged to stay even if they don't want to."

Criticism on Frattini

Last month, Valletta received international criticism for leaving 27 shipwrecked Africans hanging onto tuna nets in the Mediterranean while arguing with Libya over who should pick them up. After three days the Italian navy came to their rescue.

But the country's government blames Libya for washing its hands of the problem and fellow EU member states for their reluctance to assist Valletta in co-organising joint patrols.

For her part, Mrs Dolores also considers Franco Frattini, the EU commissioner in charge of immigration issues, as partially responsible for a slow response from other European quarters.

"As a European commissioner, he has to be more forceful in conviction," towards EU governments, she argues.

But Mr Frattini claims that despite their technical and material shortcomings, EU joint patrol operations on the Mediterranean coast have led to a significant drop in the influx of illegal immigrants.

During his visit to Malta this week, Frattini took part in a regular EU boat patrol around the island which is part of an operation called "Nautilus".

He said there is evidence to suggest would-be immigrant smugglers "took note of the announced beginning of the operations [set to last for several weeks] and concentrated their activities towards the end of the missions."

The market price for smuggling a person dropped from $1000 to $250 just days before Nautilus kicked off. Preparing for a temporary cessation of their activities the priced dropped to increase customers before activities had to come to a halt.

Because of helicopter patrols, smugglers have also changed the colour of boats from red to blue and grey, in a bid to be less easily spotted, Mr Frattini pointed out.

Permanent EU operations?

Referring to the apparent success, the commissioner said he wants to propose to member states that these border control operations become permanent from next year onwards.

But there are still many critics of the operation.

The Times of Malta reported that a total of four boats, with around 100 immigrants on board, have been stopped by EU border vessels since the start of the Nautilus operation - three of them decided to continue on their journey to Malta and one of them to Italy's Lampedusa, as the guards are powerless to prevent this.

Critics also point out that the EU's border agency, known as Frontex, has had a difficult time in providing boats and helicopters even for the limited operations so far, with only 20 boats and four helicopters at its disposal.

Frontex had been promised 115 boats, 25 helicopters and 23 planes plus a variety of other technical equipment by this April but so far only six out of 27 member states – Malta, Greece, Spain, Italy, France and Germany – have made contributions.

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