Sunday

29th Jan 2023

Malta asylum drop linked with Italy oil deal?

  • Around 100 people disembarking from the north African coast landed in Malta this year (Photo: Berit Watkin)

Moored in Malta’s capital city Valletta, Britain’s former naval assault flagship makes an imposing figure.

In a backdrop of clear blue skies and limestone walls bathed in Mediterranean sun, the HMS Bulwark arrived on the eve of a summit dedicated to stopping people from leaving the African continent to the EU.

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The British Albion-class ship is credited with rescuing around 3,000 migrants in the Mediterranean as part of the EU’s Triton mission.

But the discussions taking place between 63 African and EU leaders at a nearby former hospital appear more concerned with keeping migrants at bay.

As international media attempt to make sense of why so many people risk their lives to enter the EU, local media in Malta are speculating on why so few land on the island.

Out of the 142,000 people who disembarked from the north African coast since the start of the year, only around a 100 landed in Malta.

Located south of Sicily, Malta is the closest EU member state to the Libyan coast. Malta has a search and rescue zone that spans 250,000 km sq between Sicily and Libya.

Katrine Camilleri, Malta director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, told this website on Wednesday (11 November) that the reason why Malta sees so few arrivals “is clearly not a coincidence”.

“It is clear Italy has agreed to take almost all of the migrants rescued on this route. This agreement clearly ‘benefits’ Malta in the sense it achieves the objective of having fewer arrivals,” she said.

Camilleri noted that Maltese centres for arriving migrants are almost empty.

Although few people aspire to go to Malta, for fear of getting trapped on the island, the dramatic drop in arrivals from previous years is raising questions in Maltese press and one Italian MEP.

The UN agency for refugees (UNHCR) registered 2,008 arrivals in Malta in 2013. Last year, it dropped to 568 and this year it is only 104.

Oil explanation?

In September, Malta’s opposition leader Simon Busuttil demanded if Malta’s government had cut an oil exploration deal with the Italians in exchange for taking in Malta-bound arrivals.

The question comes in the context of an old maritime dispute.

Italy and Malta have been at odds over their respective search and rescue zones. The two overlap in some parts, which complicates territorial claims on oil exploration.

A few years ago, Italy tried to expand its economic zone into an area where Malta was preparing oil exploration.

But Malta didn’t want to budge despite Italian pressure.

The search and rescue zones are important because if the oil dispute ends up in an internatioanl tribunal, it’s likely to rule in favour of the party responsible for security in the territory.

Earlier this month, Malta’s former prime minister Lawrence Gonzi in an interview with The Times of Malta raised the same question.

“I refuse to speculate, but for years Italy had been making demands on a number of things we never accepted, mostly related to oil exploration,” he said.

In October, Italian centre-right MEP Elisabetta Gardini also asked the European Commission to explain the low arrival numbers in Malta.

She is still awaiting a reply.

But Malta’s government, for its part, denies any such deal exists.

"It is totally false. What we are doing with Italy is a joint-collaboration rather than fight out at sea and huge diplomatic disputes, we are working together and it's reaping the results,” Malta's prime minster Joseph Muscat said in Valletta on Wednesday, when asked about the supposed deal.

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