Malta and Libya: tackling the new migratory waves

Malta, officially the Republic of Malta or better in Maltese language Repubblika tà Malta, is a southern European country consisting of an archipelago situated in the centre of the Mediterranean, 80 km south of Sicily, 284 km east of Tunisia and 333 km or a little more north of Libya. With an area of 316 km² it is the most densely populated country in the EU.

It gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964 and became a Republic in 1974, whilst retaining membership in the Commonwealth of Nations.

It was admitted to the United Nations in 1964 and to the European Union in 2004. It is also party to the “Schengen Agreement” and in 2008 it became part of the Eurozone. However, Malta’s parliamentary system and public administration is closely modeled on the Westminster system. It is a neutral State actively pursuing security among all nations by adhering to a policy of non-alignment and refusing to participate in any foreign alliance.
As a result of its geographic position located in the heart of the Mediterranean, Malta is an ideal stepping stone or pit-stop between the southern border of the Mediterranean and Europe. Just for this reason it is regularly challenged with huge influxes of irregular immigrants and asylum seekers seeking to escape from the poor conditions and especially from African continent’s persecution and injustice. Irregular migration has always existed but what is really new is the increasing extent in which it has been manifesting itself in the past years, especially during and after the different uprisings took place in North Africa between 2011 and 2012, better known as “Arab Spring”. Malta has had to save, protect, host and provide asylum to an increasing number of immigrants in the past few years. However, Malta’s size, its limited resources and its overpopulation make the incoming influx of migrants seem a burden too large to handle. Glancing at the past it is not difficult to perceive like the dramatic surge in the increasing number of irregular migrants in Malta by boat coincided with the time in which Malta was joining the European Union, that is in 2004. It has become one of the main southernmost gateways or pit-stop into the European Union. But what about the Maltese policy on the issue of immigration? Malta’s immigration policy mainly consists of detention, integration, return and readmission, EU burden-sharing, maritime patrols, development cooperation. But essentially, we can define the Maltese policy as a detention policy. In fact, once in Malta, all irregular immigrants are detained in closed centers for a period up to 18 months (or twelve months if they apply for political asylum). Anyway Malta has an efficient asylum processing system. The majority of beneficiaries of international protection are from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. Malta seems to be the only EU country where resettlement and relocation programme is implemented. The 2009 call for proposals under the European Refugee Fund Community Actions (ERF) included the category of pilot projects aiming at supporting existing or creating joint platforms for resettlement inside the EU or in third countries in cooperation with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and possibly other relevant organizations. As for this point, Malta was effectively the first Member State to request the activation of this fund for reallocation within the EU with the pilot project for the Intra-EU Re-allocation from Malta – EUREMA. It was a big demonstration of cooperation and implementation given by Malta. Thanks to it Malta benefited from the reallocation which helped decrease some of the pressure on the reception system. It represents a milestone which paves the way for future similar endeavors. Another important point to be stressed is the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in Malta. Officially inaugurated on 19th June, 2011 it creates additional opportunities for the Maltese government to request assistance from other EU Member States in areas of practical cooperation, further reducing the pressure on the state’s resources. It was mainly created to give support, assistance, solidarity and dissemination of information and expertise. Briefly it represents a remarkable achievement in Malta’s short history as a EU Member State, it is testimony to Malta’s commitment, performance and reputation in the EU. Although Malta is a small country and is unable to provide economic incentives to transit countries, on a diplomatic level its role within the European migration policy should not be underestimated.
But what about the Malta’s opinion in the light of recent Libyan developments? What kind of measures does it propose? Should Malta be alarmed about the ISIS threat? What about its neutrality clause? In which terms should its neutrality clause be considered? Should Malta join the global anti-IS coalition? These and many others the topics on the table. It is a really delicate and complicated situation. Malta has only 340 km of sea separating it from ISIS-held Tripoli. It is not an imaginary threat. The fears are real even if the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat continues to affirm that Malta is in no real danger or threat from any extremist group because security forces are doing everything possible to protect national security. In the meantime the Foreign Minister George Vella stressed: “We must be vigilant for every shift in Libya: we have no immediate threat, but this does not mean there won’t be one tomorrow. We must watch the developments in the situation very closely. ISIS isn’t exporting people, they export an ideology, they export fear and their way of doing things. It created a sort of franchise. It would be foolish to deny their existence. The danger posed by ISIS is its radicalizing of Muslims who are already part of Western societies, every Muslim has the potential to become radicalized. There are hundred shades of Islamism from mild to moderate to extreme, conceding however that one cannot put every Muslim in the same bracket as ISIS and Al-Qaeda.” According to the PN Tonio Borg the problem with Libya is that there are many different tribes and the reality is that to get rid of Gaddafi we have armed everyone. It was a big mistake. In fact, the Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, learning from the past mistake, has disagreed with arming Libyan factions without a central power structure. What Libya needs is some form of unitary government. But it is also true that people learns democracy over time, not overnight. It is important to understand the psyche of the people. As Vella well stressed : “We don’t always reason in the same way as a person from an Arabic culture. In Arabic culture there is a lot of retribution. Democracy is the distillate of hundreds of years of development but in Arabic culture the Koran is a way of life in itself. When Gaddafi was removed, the West pulled out and expected them to hold a few meetings, form a party and hold elections, but they will always default to tribes.” Moreover, he added that ISIS is not anti-Christianity, it is anti all who do not endorse their brand of Islamic extremism. Nobody in Libya can tell friend from foe anymore.”
The former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi believes there are no easy answers and no simple solutions to the Libyan crisis, he looks at it as an unfinished revolution. In his point of view, this is a really delicate stage of the Libya saga. Anyway, the International community and especially the European community must continue to believe that Libya and the Libyan people can and are able to resolve their differences and to translate the dreams that inspired their 2011 uprising into reality. He is sure in affirming that the Libyan people desire nothing more than being able to live in peace, decide their own destiny, send their children to school, go to work and earn a decent living like every other normal human being. We cannot turn a blind eye to all of this. We cannot surrender to those who hold that Libya can only survive under a dictatorship that is free to threaten, kill, victimize and torture everyone into submission. We cannot resign ourselves to what appears to be an inevitable collapse of a country rich in history, culture, heritage and resources. Libya is currently caught up in a conflict among rival factions with the Tobruk and Tripoli governments each having its own governments, armed forces and separate parliaments. It is necessary to intervene as soon as possible if we don’t want to see Libya collapse. The Islamic State is gaining more and more ground in Lybia and committing more and more acts of barbarism. Without doubt the influxes of people fleeing Libya will increase day by day. A good measure to adopt could be that one proposed by the Maltese Member of the European Parliament Dr Roberta Metsola. In fact, in her point of view “one of the things that Malta can do quickly is request an activation of an EU Temporary Protection Directive (Council Directive 2001/55/EC of 20th July, 2001). This will mean that member states would give temporary protection in the event of an actual or imminent mass influx of displaced persons and ensure a balance of efforts between member states in receiving such persons and bearing the consequences of their arrival. There will be a temporary mechanism to distribute those fleeing Libya to different member states in a balanced manner so that the responsibility is not placed on states like Italy and Malta alone. This would be temporary in nature, that is, once the situation in a country of origin stabilizes the displaced persons would return. This is a Directive that already exists in EU legislation and is intended to be used in exceptional situations. […]it is already part of EU law. It is something that can be done relatively fast. What is needed is that the government requests its activation to the European Commission and then start to convince a qualified majority of partners around the table back it. The mentality that Malta is too small to make a difference is something to abhor.” Moreover, Dr Metsola’s message is clear: “Let’s work together for Malta and the Mediterranean as a whole.” It is necessary act now and not wait for situation deteriorates more. A further good proposal was the government pushes to re-deploy the EU Naval Force (EUNAVFOR – Operation Atalanta) from the Gulf of Aden to the Mediterranean. These are assets that can save lives, boost security and help deter any threats. Of course, in her point of view it will help FRONTEX and stop part of the gap left by the conclusion of Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation. Much has been said about Malta’s neutrality clause and its refusal to join the global anti-IS coalition. In fact, it seems that Malta is the only EU member state to refuse to join the global coalition. Which are the main reasons about it? The Prime Minister Joseph Muscat explained the government had protested when “the EU bureaucracy” included the country in a list of coalition participants in September last year adding that “foreign policy decisions should be taken by us not by the EU bureaucracy…the question is not whether Malta would join the US-led coalition but rather when and on what terms.” He is right but it is not time to stamp his feet, Malta needs to join sooner rather than later. It is necessary a united common approach if we are to be successful. Malta is too close to risk being seen as vulnerable without strong allies. Of course, Malta’s strength will come from its global partnership and the comfort of knowing that it forms part of a strong alliance. Some stressed that Malta’s neutrality clause prevents its participation but as well stressed the former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Borello the neutrality clause’s provisions in the Constitution have to be interpreted in the light of the circumstances prevailing at the time they were written. In his personal point of view “The neutrality clause had never come in the way of Malta’s involvement in the fight against organized crime, which was not a country but a phenomenon not entirely dissimilar to the jihadist group. In fact, it is by not fighting international terrorism that Malta would be in breach of the Constitution.”
Anyway, the Maltese Prime Minister’ words underline a certain predisposition to join an international coalition against Islamic State. But he remains firm on his position “Malta could not provide military backing but pledged logistical and humanitarian support even if there was wide international support for some type of military intervention should diplomacy fail, nevertheless, Malta always preferred any military action to be sanctioned by the UN. Irregular immigration was bound to get worse if Libya remained split between two governments and an extremist faction. […]The only real long-term solution to the situation is the formation of a national unity government between the two sides which could then lead to the establishment of the rule of law and stability. The IS threat in Libya will hopefully encourage Libyans to put aside their differences and seek common ground. The International community must be relentless in pressuring Tripoli and Tobruk to agree to a peace deal, and we hope the UN talks will be successful.”
There is only one way to do all that: as the old saying goes, Unity is strength. It is a global fight, it is a common problem, it needs cooperation, burden sharing, responsibility among all the EU Member States and not only.


Master’s degree in Global Politics and Euro-Mediterranean Relations (University of Catania)

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