Update 2 - Malta demands safeguards as EU discusses migrants deal with Turkey
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Update 2 - Malta demands safeguards as EU discusses migrants deal with Turkey

Malta is seeking a commitment of forceful action from the EU should the migration route shift back to the Central Mediterranean if agreement is reached with Turkey, closing the Turkey-Greece route. 

"If, after this agreement, the migrants start to cross from Turkey to Bulgaria, or from Egypt to the Mediterranean or from Libya to Malta and Italy, the EU must be ready to act in the same manner as it is doing with Turkey," Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in Brussels, where he is attending an EU leaders' summit.

He also argued that the EU could not be taken seriously when it agreed a €6billion package with Turkey but then spent much less in Africa, where many of the migrants came from.

The proposed agreement with Turkey, therefore, was not ideal but it would be a disaster to allow the current disaster to continue, he said.

Turkey has been demanding substantial EU funds as well as other measures, including visa-free travel facilities, in exchange for turning migrants back.

Dr Muscat said there were also issues of international law, not least because this agreement could be viewed as a form of push-back.  

Earlier, Opposition leader Simon Busuttil, addressing EPP leaders in Brussels sounded the same warning.

While welcoming the prospect of an agreement with Turkey, Dr Busuttil said that blocking the Turkey-Greece route did not solve the problem. If anything, it would push the route to another area, such as the central Mediterranean region, affecting other Member States like Italy and Malta.

“It would be naive to think that by blocking the Turkish-Greek route the problem is sorted. It would merely push it to another area” Dr Busuttil said. “It would lead to more people attempting the perilous journey from the Libyan coast and more people losing their lives in the Mediterranean. The EU must therefore be prepared now for any eventual influx along this route.”

ISIS will be jumping on a new opportunity to make money out of smuggling people across the Mediterranean. We cannot let them gain from this- Busuttil

Simon Busuttil added that the reopening of the Libyan route would complicate matters even further. “At least in Turkey we have an interlocutor, a Government to talk to, but in Libya we do not even have that. Moreover, ISIS will be jumping on a new opportunity to make money out of smuggling people across the Mediterranean. We cannot let them gain from this,” Busuttil said.

“Unless the root of the problem is addressed in Syria and in Libya alike, the problem will not go away,” he said.

Maria Pisani, director of the Integra Foundation, told the Times of Malta:

“We’ve seen it many times already. It’s like water: when you close one route, others will open. It makes complete sense that it will shift back to the central Mediterranean. Whether we’ll actually see more landings in Malta depends on whether the informal agreement with Italy holds.”

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat chats with EU Council president Donald Tusk before the summit started.Prime Minister Joseph Muscat chats with EU Council president Donald Tusk before the summit started.

The EU-Turkey agreement, which will be discussed further with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu tomorrow, includes a €3 billion ‘one-for-one’ refugee exchange programme which would see Syrian refugees who land in Greece returned to Turkey.

In return, European countries would take asylum seekers living in Turkish refugee camps. Turkey would also be expected to prevent new routes for illegal migration opening up into the EU.

Concerns have been raised over whether the agreement falls foul of the EU’s own charter of fundamental rights, which specifically forbids collective ‘expulsions’ and over whether Turkey is a safe country for refugees to be sent back to.

Earlier this week, Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) party, warned that the agreement would only force desperate refugees to look for other routes.

“We will see, once again, the revival of the Lampedusa route, a new Malta route, a new Albanian route and a new Bulgarian route,” he said, describing the agreement as contrary to European values.

According to the International Organisation on Migration, more than 3,770 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean in 2015. In April, the deadliest month, about 800 people perished when their boat capsized off Libya.

Scenes like this may be repeated off Malta’s shores. Photo: Darrin Zammit LupiScenes like this may be repeated off Malta’s shores. Photo: Darrin Zammit Lupi

Over the last year, however, the main flow of migrants from the Middle East has shifted towards the Balkans. Last summer, the number of people crossing by land through the region was roughly equal to those entering Europe by sea through Italy, where previously, land crossings were outnumbered nearly four to one.

Whether Syrians will start to go back through North Africa remains to be seen

Maltese MEP Roberta Metsola said another shift in routes had never been excluded.

“It was never certain that the sea crossings across the Mediterranean would not start again,” she said. “Whether Syrians will start to go back through North Africa, which is currently a no-go area, remains to be seen. The situation may change in the event of a new unity government in Libya, but I would not rule anything out.

“The question now is whether Europe will take action to ensure that people do not continue to die at sea, including legal routes for people in need of protection,” Dr Metsola said. 

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