20th Feb 2020

EU ignores Malta on special status for refugees

  • Evacuation operations from Libya are still ongoing (Photo: USEmbMalta)

Malta has asked to activate a "temporary protection" mechanism allowing refugees from Libya to be granted fast-track asylum procedures anywhere in the EU. But neither the European Commission nor other member states are willing to proceed for now.

"The Maltese government has requested yesterday [30 March] the activation of the temporary protection mechanism. It is now up to the EU commission to come up with a response," Maltese centre-right MEP Simon Bussutil told this website on Thursday, on the fringes of a debate on migration organised in Brussels by the European Policy Centre.

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In his view, the commission is waiting to see what the mood is among member states before triggering the mechanism, established in 2001 and never used so far.

"I don't think it's the right attitude, the commission should come forward with a proposal and throw it at the Council [of ministers]," Bussutil said.

Malta, home to little more than 400,000 native inhabitants, earlier this week received 819 refugees from Libya, mainly Somali and Eritreans, who are the most vulnerable group of people stuck in the Libya conflict.

Other boats carrying over 2,000 sub-Saharan Africans from Libya recently arrived on Malta's neighbouring island of Lampedusa - an Italian piece of land closer to the Tunisian coast than Sicily and already overcrowded by Tunisian migrants.

Faced with these developments, Maltese officials are preparing for the worst-case scenario.

"The migration problem we have ahead of us is completely different to what Malta has experienced so far. A civil war is ongoing in Libya, which will surely prompt more people to flee from the war-torn country," justice and home affairs minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici was quoted as saying by Malta's Independent newspaper.

"Just under 3,000 migrants have landed either in Malta or in Lampedusa over the past few days, and there is a strong possibility that more could be on their way," the minister added.

Italy has so far been at the forefront of "solidarity" calls, urging the EU to step up its financial aid and other member states to shoulder the burden of southern immigration.

But when asked if Italy would back the call for the temporary protection to be enacted, Italian ambassador to the EU, Ferdinando Nelli Feroci, said: "So far, the situation is being examined in Rome and we don't think the conditions are met to trigger the temporary protection mechanism."

Among the conditions, Feroci cited "armed conflict", "massive flows of refugees" and "systematic violation of human rights."

While admitting that the war in Libya and the Nato-led operations Italy is part of was prompted by Gaddafi's attacks on civilians, the ambassador argued that the influx of refugees was not yet "massive."

The analysis comes despite statements by Italian interior minister Roberto Maroni - a politician from the anti-immigration Lega Nord party - who warned of a "biblical exodus" from north African states following the uprisings.

Italy's split attitude - claiming an exodus on one hand, but then saying there is no mass influx - could be linked to the fact that the temporary protection mechanism may trigger bigger costs to the host nations, as the special status can be extended for up to two years.

The EU commission - confirming Bussutil's analysis - has meanwhile said it is "assessing" the situation and will discuss the option of temporary protection at an upcoming meeting of interior ministers on 11 April.

Member states in the northern part of the continent, such as Britain or the Netherlands, see the situation as "not sufficient" to trigger the temporary protection measures, initially designed for Kosovo refugees, when there were hundreds of thousands of people concerned. "The current situation in Malta and elsewhere involves a much smaller number of people, and it's not clear that they all require protection within the EU," one EU diplomat told this website.

The latest figures provided by Aid organisations such as the UNHCR confirm that the 'exodus' from Libya is mainly affecting neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, not the EU as such.

Out of the 423,000 refugees fleeing the war, 200,000 fled to Tunisia, 160,000 to Egypt and only some 23,000 went to Europe, said John Fredrikson from the UNHCR Brussels office.

EU support for an evacuation program co-ordinated by the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR repatriating most of these refugees from Asian and some African countries is essential in helping Tunisia - a country with a population equivalent to that of Belgium (10 million people) cope with these massive refugee camps.

"Tunisia needs Europe's help, especially given the fact that they so generously kept their borders open," Fredrikson said.

Among the people fleeing the war-torn country are also Libyan nationals - some 60,000 - but they don't stay in refugee camps, as they "have the resources to rent apartments," the UNHCR representative added.

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