No opt-outs on migration, says Malta
By Eric Maurice
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.
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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".
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.