Thursday

22nd Feb 2024

No opt-outs on migration, says Malta

  • "We are still living a crisis when it comes to migration," Malta's interior minister says. (Photo: iom.int)

Outside the Auberge de Castille, the office of Maltese prime ministers in Valletta, a giant marble knot symbolises Malta's position as a link between Europe and Africa.



It was inaugurated in November 2015 when the Mediterranean island hosted an EU-Africa summit to try to find ways to manage and reduce the number of people coming from sub-Saharan and north African countries to the EU.



Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

More than a year later, Malta has taken the helm of the EU Council of ministers and intends to push its agenda for more engagement with the south.

"We are going to try to give more attention to the southern neighbourhood," Maltese foreign minister George Vella told journalists in Valletta on Friday (13 January). 



He insisted that the EU should "try to develop the countries from which we are receiving migrants", in its neighbourhood around the Mediterranean but also in "the neighbourhood of the neighbours", especially the Sahel region.

Malta, which is around 300km from Tunisia and Libya, also wants to remind its EU partners that "we are still living a crisis when it comes to migration", interior minister Carmelo Abela said.

While numbers of migrants and refugees coming from Turkey through Greece and the Balkan route have decreased since the 2015-2016 peaks, "the central Mediterranean is still the main route and number of deaths has increased", Abela pointed out.

Over 173,000 people crossed the sea from Libya, mainly to Italy, in 2015 and over 181,000 in 2016, the minister said.

Meanwhile, according to UNHCR figures 4,527 people died or went missing in 2016 on the Central Mediterranean route, compared with 2,913 in 2015.


Malta, a country of 400,000 inhabitants, has been itself on the front line for more than a decade, with two peaks of 2,775 arrivals by boat in 2008 and 2,008 in 2013.

The number of migrants arriving by boat on the island had fallen since 2013, to only 29 last year, according to UNHCR figures.

"Everything changed with Mare Nostrum," said Mark Micallef, who runs the Migrant Report website in Malta.

 Italy launched the search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum in October 2013 after over 350 people died in a shipwreck off the coast of its island of Lampedusa, less than 200km from Malta.

A year later, the EU border agency Frontex took over and launched operation Triton, in which Malta takes part.



A European issue

Malta, the smallest EU country, is the only one to devote 100 percent of its navy to manage migration, its prime minister Joseph Muscat noted.

But if boat arrivals have fallen to almost zero, the number of asylum request remains the same. Many people come by plane, mainly from Libya, Turkey or Greece, and overstay, an official said.

Last year 1,733 people asked for asylum, with Libyan, Syrian, Eritrean and Somalian being the main nationalities.

Malta now wants to use its geographical position and recent experience to push for a more integrated EU migration policy.

"After a number of years, finally it is accepted that the issue of migration is a European issue," Abela noted.

But he added that "it doesn't mean that we don't have problems within the 28 on how to tackle the issue".

The minister expressed regret that, while thousands of migrants were crossing the central Mediterranean, "we are still discussing how to internally deal with the issue of migration".

"From time to time I don't see that all member states are committed equally to sense the urgency and try to come to solutions," he added.

'Solidarity is solidarity'

On the Maltese EU presidency's table, the most difficult file is the reform of the Dublin asylum system.

Several countries, especially the Visegrad group of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, are refusing the permanent mandatory relocation of asylum seekers proposed by the European Commission last year.

Malta doesn't expect to reach an agreement on the reform and aims only at making progress in the discussions.

"The common denominator is so low that we won't push for an agreement," a top Maltese official said off the record. "It is better to continue with a system that needs reform than adopt a bad system."

Abela however insisted that all countries should at some point accept to relocate refugees.

"I don't think we should consider opt-outs," he said. "Every member state should accept all the principles that should be in the Dublin reform."

"Solidarity is solidarity and that's it, we don't have to give any labels to solidarity," he added, referring to the concept of "flexible" and "effective" solidarity put forward by the Visegrad countries.

He said that discussion would build upon a proposal put forward by Slovakia, the previous EU presidency, in which EU countries would have different kinds of commitments according to different levels of crisis.

"There can be stages, we should consider that as an option," Abela said. Participation in relocation would "depend on the percentage [of refugees] that one takes, on what level and at what point in time".

Libya deal

Another idea that the Maltese presidency has been floating in recent days is a deal with Libya to reduce the number of people crossing to Europe, modelled on the agreement passed with Turkey last year.

"It's still in the planning stage," foreign affairs minister Vella said, after prime minister Muscat mentioned the idea to journalists.

"We're talking about it, we've had discussions and there is certain amount of agreement that this is the way to go," he added.

Vella insisted that there would be "definitively no pushbacks", because "we believe in the right of individual to claim asylum and to claim humanitarian protection". But he said that the EU should distinguish between refugees and economic migrants.

Most of the people who cross the Central Mediterranean coming from Africa through Libya are considered as economic migrants.

From the relocating refugees, to development in Sahel and a deal with unstable Libya that could prove controversial, the Maltese EU presidency will try to push on all fronts.

"There is a connection between internal actions and external actions," Abela noted.

EU mulls Turkey-type migrant deal with Libya

The Maltese EU presidency said a "similar approach" to the Turkey deal could stop migrants coming from Libya, but the UN said the plan was a non-starter.

Malta will try to 'please everyone' on migration

The forthcoming EU presidency will seek compromise on asylum policy and push forward discussions on the control of external borders, Maltese interior minister Carmelo Abela told EUobserver.

Agenda

Malta summit on EU future This WEEK

Twenty seven EU leaders, with the UK left out, will meet in Malta on Friday to discuss reforms in reaction to Brexit and Trump.

Feature

Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza

Despite the high risk of dying from war, starvation or disease, Gazans are still not allowed to enter Egypt. Except those who bribe the authorities. And the EU mission EUBAM Rafah cannot be deployed due to security reasons.

'Nightmare' 2024 sees Orbán struggle ahead of EU elections

Viktor Orbán admits that 2024 "could not have started any worse" for his government. The sex-abuse scandal that led to the resignation of the president provides an opportunity for Hungary's opposition — but their fragmentation could be a major obstacle.

Latest News

  1. EU auditors: rule-of-law budget protections only partial success
  2. EU's €723bn Covid recovery fund saw growth, but doubts remain
  3. Von der Leyen rejects extremist parties, leaves door open to ECR
  4. Russian oligarchs failed to get off EU blacklist
  5. Podcast: Navalny, Ian Bremmer and "more Europe"
  6. Only Palestinians paying thousands of dollars leave Gaza
  7. Ukraine refugees want to return home — but how?
  8. African leaders unveil continent-wide plan to buy medicines

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us