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Operation Themis fallout

Over the last four years, Malta has been spared the intense pressure of irregular immigrants being rescued and brought to these islands as had been the case for 12 years before. During this time, Italy has borne the burden almost entirely alone.

The situation is about to change. The key question now is: are the Armed Forces of Malta, the police and the Detention Service ready and able to cope with a possible fresh surge of refugees on a scale not recently experienced?

The European Union’s border agency, Frontex, has launched a new Mediterranean operation, Operation Themis, which removes the practice prevalent throughout the previous four-year mission to take all rescued migrants to Italy. With more than 600,000 migrants being landed on Italian shores during this period, there has been a populist backlash in Italy that has, rightly, deplored the lack of EU solidarity in helping it to manage such a huge influx.

With Italian elections due in three weeks’ time and the centre-left government under intense pressure to demonstrate it has the immigrant situation under control, the announcement by Frontex is not unexpected. Italy’s energetic Home Affairs Minister, Marco Minniti, has made strenuous initiatives in Libya – the source of the migration problem - and, for a while, there was a marked reduction in crossings, although numbers have now started to creep up again.

If, as seems likely, a right-wing coalition of anti-immigrant parties wins power in Italy after March 4, the pressure to ensure it does not take all rescued migrants to its southern shores but leaves disembarkation to the country coordinating the rescue mission to ensure under international maritime law they go to “the nearest place of safety”, Malta could find itself again in the very forefront of the front line.

No matter how the Maltese government dresses it up –deploring the fact that the extent of Themis’s area of operations has been moved further north – it should be drawing up plans for a renewed influx of refugees to Malta on a scale not experienced in the last four years.

Reliable reports from NGOs involved with migrants indicate that the manpower support structure for dealing with them and the infrastructure of the closed accommodation centres at Ħal Far and Safi “have been either dismantled or left neglected and most of the staff deployed elsewhere”.

Both the manpower in the Detention Service and the accommodation facilities to hold migrants were poor even at their peak. If these reports are accurate, it presents an extremely worrying picture of unpreparedness for what lies ahead. The sooner the government starts to recruit the necessary numbers, the better.

It is crucial that contingency plans are put in place to ensure that, in the eventuality of a major influx of asylum-seekers, the infrastructure, manpower and other support facilities can cope. It is understood that the planning under former home affairs minister, Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici, envisaged having to deal with up to 10,000 refugees.

None of this can happen quickly. Recruiting and training personnel of the right calibre and numbers and restoring neglected infrastructure facilities take time. The Minister for Home Affairs and National Security should start preparing immediately for this eventuality if he is to avert having to deal with a political and national migrant crisis in the current state of unpreparedness.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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