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A possible crisis - Edward Zammit Lewis

A migrant looks on as he rests on the deck of Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières on their way to Spain.

A migrant looks on as he rests on the deck of Aquarius, a search and rescue ship run in partnership between SOS Mediterranée and Médecins Sans Frontières on their way to Spain.

The refugee crises that hit Europe in recent years have affected the tone of political discourse, giving rise to identity politics and nationalism. Populist political parties have exploited the anxieties felt about migration. Nowhere in Europe has this been truer than in neighbouring Italy. At this stage it is difficult to say to what extent Italy’s newly appointed populist coalition government will implement its xenophobic and anti-immigrationelectoral promises.

The Mediterranean has faced unique migratory challenges in recent years. Libya, the country through which most irregular migrants taking the central Mediterranean route transit, is still caught up in its post-Gaddafi turmoil. It lacks any central authority capable of exerting control over its territory, much less over its borders. The lack of stability in Libya makes it impossible for the EU to replicate the deal concluded with Turkey in 2016.

Managing migration by sea is different from controlling land borders. Different interpretations of international maritime law has led to this week’s standoff between Malta and Italy. Moreover, the application of human rights law and international refugee law, calls on rescuing ships not to return refugees to countries where they are likely to face danger and persecution. This puts a heavy burden on host countries where refugees have to be taken.

The hazards of migration by sea on fragile makeshift boats, and spurred by lucrative and unscrupulous human trafficking, add to the pressure on rescue operations. In 2017, 3,115 deaths were recorded.

Italy and Malta are the most exposed to the flow of irregular migrants taking the central Mediterranean route. A deal concluded in February 2017 by Italy’s Interior Minister Marco Minniti with the Al Sarraj government, and later endorsed by General Haftar, whereby Italy provided funds in exchange for help in fighting human smugglers, brought significant reductions in boat people leaving Libya. 

The deal, however, was denounced by human rights groups, and even the Council of Europe and the High Commissioner for Refugees expressed concern, because of the conditions in Libyan detention centres. The situation is in my opinion back to square one.

According to Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos, there has been a downward trend in the central Mediterranean route in 2017, and this continued during the first months of 2018, with arrival figures around 77 per cent lower than those recorded in the same period last year.

However, it is not boat arrivals that really matter but the number of asylum applications that a country receives.  In this respect, though Italy took by far the largest share of boat people, the asylum applications statistics show that Malta, in proportion to its size, is carrying more than twice the Italian burden.

In 2017, according to Eurostat, Italy received 379 asylum applications per million people, while Malta received more than twice that number, 856 per million.

Prime Minister Muscat rightly stated in Parliament on Monday that, as he had always argued, this is a European issue requiring a European solution. 

Both Malta and Italy have for a long time been banging at Europe’s door, insisting on burden sharing and on the need for an equitable and compulsory solidarity mechanism which will include refugee relocation.

Indeed, the EU seems to have lost control and has not been able to adopt and implement stronger rules and institutions for controlling its external borders, nor has it been able to establish effective policies on asylum and migration.

The current debate at council level on a comprehensive reform of the Common European Asylum System has sharpened the European divide on migration issues. Crucial for this reform are a revision of Dublin’s “first country rule” and the adoption of a solidarity mechanism that will allow an immediate redistribution of asylum seekers.

Though Italy took by far the largest share of boat people, the asylum applications statistics show that Malta, in proportion to its size, is carrying more than twice the Italian burden

The concept of an obligatory allocation is still a divisive issue among member states. The Visegrad countries remain resolute in their rejection of compulsory measures on the relocation of asylum seekers. Countries on the southern EU borders, which are most exposed to first arrivals, argue that responsibilities are too heavy on countries of first entry and that the solidarity measures in place are insufficient.

To some extent they are supported by others member states, among them Germany, which do not want to abandon the principle of a minimum level of solidarity, and are not likely to agree to a solution which does not include a compulsory relocation applicable to all member states.

The current Bulgarian Presidency is still hoping to include the subject in the agenda of the upcoming European Council on June 28-29.

However, chances of a compromise look slim and the debate will probably continue under the Austrian Presidency. Predictions are that Austria will put less emphasis on relocation quotas, which is the most divisive issue, and instead insist on more efforts on managing external borders and on solidarity measures with the countries of origin to prevent irregular migrants coming to Europe.

The failure of the EU to implement the emergency measures agreed in September 2015, whereby 160,000 persons had to be relocated from Italy and Greece in two years, is a warning sign that an agreement on a compulsory corrective allocation mechanism is unrealistic at this stage. The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland refused to comply with this decision, triggering court cases, while others dragged their feet. Malta was among the first member states to accept its quota of 168 refugees.

The lack of progress on reforms of the European Common Asylum System means that the EU remains unprepared to deal with sudden surges of refugees. This is of major concern both for Italy and for Malta.

Frontex, which in 2016 became the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is being strengthened by more staff and a better budget. However, its main function remains limited to coordinate the deployment of additional experts and technical equipment to border areas that are under stress.

In this respect, the positive role of Malta cannot be under estimated, considering that Malta was the driving force behind the 2015 Valletta Migration Summit. At this summit, the EU established a multibillion-euro trust fund and adopted 16 concrete projects aimed at addressing the root causes of irregular migration and displacement of persons. This is undoubtedly a step forward.

However, the attitude of the new Italian government remains a primary concern for Malta. The government remains determined to continue to defend Malta’s national interest and to abide by international law. It is also committed to respect the rights and dignity of irregular migrants and to eradicate at its roots any form of racism.

This weekend’s standoff between Malta and Italy has been resolved thanks to the intervention of Spain’s new Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez. However, with summer and calmer seas approaching there is a real risk of a major surge of irregular migration towards the central Mediterranean.

It is imperative to look for a solution that will prevent future confrontations between two countries that have enjoyed long traditional good neighbourly relations. The solution can only be found however in a strong EU approach where clear and effective rules apply and are implemented by all. 

Edward Zammit Lewis is chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign and European Affairs.

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