Malta is facing a very big problem where the children of irregular immigrants are concerned, whether they are born in detention or open centres in Malta or arrive on boats accompanied by their parents or other people, Labour MP George Vella warned yesterday.

Speaking during the debate on the second reading of the Bill to amend the Refugees Act, Dr Vella said that the social aspects of children in the whole drama of illegal immigration had not been given enough attention.

He asked about the nationality status of these children: Were they Maltese citizens or the nationals of their or their parents' countries of origin? Did one know whether the unaccompanied minors had in fact been kidnapped? The problem must be looked at from all its aspects, but more importantly from the humanitarian aspect.

Dr Vella said that the opposition had always given its backing to the government on issues related to irregular immigration. This was a human tragedy which needed to be discussed rationally as it dealt with the sensitive issue of human lives.

He thanked the armed forces rescue teams who repeatedly risked their lives, in all sorts of weather, to save these people. The type of immigration Malta currently faced was unprecedented. It had suddenly increased drastically, bringing with it a number of new problems.

The under-developed states of Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, and its political instability compared to the economic stability of Europe, or more precisely the European Union, were two of the main reasons for this movement. Modern communications enticed these people to escape their plight and try to find something better. They would even risk their lives to do this.

The problem for Malta, Dr Vella said, emanated from its size and the limited resources the country had at its disposal. Malta needed to consider its national interest, before it even began to consider what could be done. Even if Malta received assistance from the European Union, the issue of limited human resources had to be considered.

One had to beware of elements of racism and xenophobia, although this was not to say that Malta should open its doors wide and think about the consequences later.

Upon their arrival in Malta these people faced a period of detention, which he had never been in favour of, particularly the 18-month term. But in the national interest, one who had just landed in Malta could not be allowed to roam freely.

Soldiers who worked with immigrants, he said, told terrible stories of threats and insults thrown at them when they were trying to help, but he questioned whether this was a result of their being cooped up for so long. He said that there must be some way to improve the situation, without putting Malta's security at risk.

The damning report of Medecins sans Frontieres, which claimed that the Maltese medical system did not do enough for these immigrants, had been counteracted by the government, and showed that a lot was indeed being done. But there was room for improvement because the conditions were shameful, and better use could be made of vacant government buildings.

It was important to have more inclusivity and to be more humane. In Malta the refugees were sometimes treated badly, such as in the case of employers who offered them lower wages. Some people tended to believe that, if Malta treated them well, more would come over. He went on to commend the work carried out by the Peace Lab with the immigrants.

Once the situation was accepted, he said, Malta needed to acknowledge its limitations. One also had to ask how ready the Maltese were to accept them into their culture.

Malta also had to assert the help that was needed, and it was unfair to hear "It's your problem". He was saying this not to criticise the European Union, but it was a fact that the EU did not fulfil what it had promised. Even Frontex was working in an irregular fashion.

Malta had to say this was how many irregular immigrants it could take. More would put a further strain on the economy.

Dr Vella said that Malta did not need to fear another mosque. It was better that people believed in something than in nothing at all. One must educate the public about this reality.

He felt there could be greater cooperation between Libya and the EU. The ideal system, he said, would be an improved climate in Africa which would not give any reason for citizens to try to escape. But this was just a dream. In the meantime, the Maltese must remain vigilant against irregular immigrants. On the other hand, it was unthinkable to leave people to the mercies of the seas.

Earlier. Education Minister Dolores Cristina said that the Bill would bring Malta into line with two EU directives. The most important of all the amendments was the subsidiary protection status to be granted to an asylum seeker whose application was dismissed, where his forcible return to his country of origin or country of habitual residence would constitute a real risk.

She said that many Maltese did not distinguish between illegal immigrants and asylum seekers. The phenomena of immigration were new to Malta. Indeed, the concerns of the Maltese people about irregular immigration should be addressed, but there was no call for racism or xenophobia or for incitement against irregular immigrants.

Mrs Cristina said that foreign criticism about the way irregular immigrants had been treated in Malta was unfair. Malta had always done its best to accommodate these people, but the promised assistance had never arrived. During the last legislature, as Minister for Social Solidarity, she was responsible for the open centres, which housed vulnerable people like unaccompanied minors and expectant mothers. Compared to other such centres, she said, the way of life these irregular immigrants enjoyed in Malta was far better.

said that the armed forces and the police should be commended for all they had done and were doing for irregular immigrants. Malta had moved from the crisis mode to see where to house the irregular immigrants, even if open centres today housed around 2,000 people.

Mrs Cristina said she wanted to correct the misconception that these people were living in hotel-like comforts. Some of them passed the harsh winter months under tents. She said that Walter Irvine of the UNHCR always praised Malta for the way it was caring for the irregular immigrants but then, in contrast, the last Amnesty International report had indeed been unfair.

Irregular immigration amounted to human trafficking and, Mrs Cristina said, she would also like to see the EU speak publicly about the issue. It was obscene that people profited from the sorry plight of others.

The movement of people in Europe was strong: From the east to the west and from the south to the north of the continent. Many countries knew how to integrate irregular immigrants but then, countries like Italy, Malta, Greece and Cyprus found it difficult to provide for their integration. Burden-sharing among countries was imperative.

Mrs Cristina referred to an education conference she had attended in Oslo on multi-culturalism, where the subject of irregular immigration had been discussed in depth. Schools, she said, could help in integration.

The Maltese made a difference between irregular immigrants and other foreign people who had been welcomed and had already integrated nicely. Concluding, Mrs Cristina augured that during this year, dedicated to inter-cultural dialogue, no stone would be left unturned to make every effort for these immigrants to integrate into Maltese society.

Nationalist MP Charló Bonnici said that while all assistance must be given to irregular immigrants, it did not mean that Malta should not take steps to stop this flow. The Frontex experience showed that there had been a 41 per cent drop in irregular immigration in an eight-month period last year.

He said irregular immigration was a developing issue and legislation thereon should therefore be updated accordingly.

Mr Bonnici quoted Commissioner for Refugees Mario Friggieri saying that 300 asylum applications had been decided and 300 others were in the pipeline.

It was not fair that some Maltese exploited irregular immigrants by offering them lesser wages and inferior working conditions when offering them employment.

He said it was now time for the EU to work on a common repatriation policy.

Turning to the Bill, Mr Bonnici said it was good that the non-refoulement policy would continue to be enforced, thus ensuring that a person should not be expelled from Malta or returned to the frontiers of territories where the life or freedom of that person would be threatened.

He said this would mean that Malta would also help those who did not qualify for asylum status through subsidiary protection. He augured that a mechanism would be established within the EU for direct burden sharing and some countries would start taking irregular immigrants.

Dr Jean Pierre Farrugia (PN) said that the UN Convention and protocol on the rights of refugees gave their children attending primary schools the same rights as those of the children of the country concerned.

But with regard to higher schooling, this was on the same level as any other foreigner in the country. The same applied with regards to housing, social assistance, employment and industrial relations.

After three years living in the country or when they married a local citizen they would have the same right to work as citizens of the country. The immigrants would be liable to pay tax.

Dr Farrugia said that through the Bill, Malta was giving a clear indication that it was prepared to welcome those in real difficulty. But the proposed amendments strengthened the authorities' hand in taking steps as regards those who did not qualify for asylum.

The new qualification for refugee status and subsidiary protection status emanated from the immigration policies which the EU was developing.

The accelerated procedures regarding appeals cut down considerable waste of time and resources, as there was closer collaboration between the Refugee Commissioner and the Appeals Board.

The Bill would also give the same rights for employment to members of the family of the refugee. He hoped that the irregular immigrants would find employment to sustain themselves.

Dr Farrugia said the EU did not want irregular immigrants to be divided among the member states, but it wanted solidarity among all countries through burden sharing.

The Council of Ministers had decided on aspects which Malta had been practising for a number of years. It was important for the EU to speak with one voice as far as irregular immigration was concerned, as this would be an eye-opener to those would-be irregular immigrants not to leave their countries of origin because they would not be welcome.

However, much still needed to be done to eliminate the factors that pushed people to leave their countries in search for better living conditions. The EU had a budget of €300 billion for good governance in Africa and this was aimed at helping to ease these factors. There were other budgets to help Northern African countries, but there must be more coherence.

The Frontex budget had been increased and measures could be taken on a more permanent basis.

Concluding, Dr Farrugia said it was important for Maltese ministers to continue to participate in EU structures which could improve the situation.

Nationalist MP Joe Falzon began his speech by wishing the new Labour leader, Dr Joseph Muscat, a bright political future.

Mr Falzon said that the issue of mass migration, which involved movement of large numbers of people, potentially had a very far-reaching effect, especially in a small place such as Malta. Being a small island in the Mediterranean and on the borders of Europe, coupled with the fact that it was a sort of doorway into Europe, Malta often found itself host to people with no intention of coming to Malta specifically.

Phenomena such as that of global warming, he said, in future might result in people having to leave their countries for reasons other than economic or political. In the coming years this was a possibility that Malta and other EU countries could be facing as temperatures soared. This could wreak havoc on countries and encourage mass migration.

Immigration changed circumstances, and this affected not only the religion or culture of a country but also areas of economy, employment and daily life. Some countries which had already faced mass migration had seen a number of changes as these small communities grew and developed. This, he said, was also happening in Malta.

The Maltese economic situation had grown to the extent that some jobs were no longer done by Maltese people and this, he said, showed this cultural divide. In terms of low-skilled jobs the majority of workers nowadays were foreign. Even in the agricultural sector, immigrants had a strong influence, as many worked in this sector in European countries.

Mr Falzon said this was not a situation that only Malta faced, but rather all of Europe, and therefore it merited attention. He insisted that together with other Europeans, Malta had to continue to insist on this particular topic and keep it at the top of the agenda.

One had to think of how these circumstances could affect Malta, not just now but even in the future. These settlements and mixing of cultures gave rise to a diversity of ideas. Some people were adamant that they did not want to accept these different people, while others, such as those on the "All Different, All Equal" EU programme, worked for precisely the opposite.

When discussing such amendments, he said, it was important to reflect on matters which arose when these people remained in Malta.

Malta was a country that looked to the future, and in general its people could be said to be helpful and understanding, but one had to safeguard the position of Malta and keep in mind its size and needs. One would wish, he said, that in matters such as those of repatriation and burden sharing, other European countries would help out and more help from Frontex would be forthcoming.

Considering that this was an extremely sensitive issue, and sensitive to debate even in Parliament, Mr Falzon said the fact that the two parties could discuss so maturely without making it a partisan matter was laudable. In actual fact, he said, the two parties probably had common concerns.

He again appealed to the House EU and Foreign Affairs Committee, which was crucial in this area, to place this issue at the top of the agenda. He reiterated that these circumstances could result in some extreme changes if left to get out of control. It was important to move from planning stages to implementation, he said, with the help of the European Parliament as well as other agencies. It was important to strengthen the medical teams, the armed forces and all other infrastructures needed to deal with such situations, such as the police and the Civil Protection Department. He thanked all those who had in any way given a hand in easing this situation.

At the beginning of yesterday's sitting, Nationalist MP Frederick Azzopardi referred to his speech on irregular immigration last Tuesday and revised the figure of irregular immigrants who drowned in the Mediterranean every year from 6,000 to 600.

The House of Representatives yesterday also gave a first reading to the Freedom of Information Bill and the Development Planning (Amendment) Bill.

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