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Question time: Risking life at sea

Is Malta ready or not to handle a suddeninflux of migrants?

Sarah-Louise Galea, spokeswoman for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade Promotion

On June 27, I stood with the international press at Boiler Wharf waiting for MV Lifeline to dock. The ship carrying 234 migrants had been at sea for a week during which Malta made sure the migrants had food, water and medical supplies. Upon arriving, regardless of where they were from, the migrants were given the correct care, with the world’s media watching.

The Armed Forces of Malta, the police, the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers, the Civil Protection Department, Transport Malta, the health authorities and other personnel worked hand in hand, using all their experience. The UNHCR commented that it found no fault with the disembarkation process.

But is Malta ready to handle a sudden influx of migrants? I believe this is not about numbers. This is about people: both migrants and Malta’s population. This is about welcoming those who genuinely need asylum, but ensuring everyone does his part. Not expecting the smallest member State to cope alone with regular influxes.

This is about making sure ships with trained staff on board get the support they need to patrol waters under international rules, without being a pull factor which encourages more people and economic migrants to risk their lives at sea and, often worse, the perilous journey across the dessert into Libya.

This is about doing what we can in countries people are fleeing from, through our foreign policy, while continuing to fight human trafficking. Ironically, when the migrants landed on the 27th, the ‘anti-boarder’ protesters released a banner that read “Stop Human Trafficking”. Yet, we all know it is because of human trafficking these people managed to get here.

Malta cannot deal with the migration situation alone

These were the lucky ones. Others, just a few days later, were not. The traffickers get their money regardless.

The MV Lifeline case developed after the captain went against international rules and ignored directions given by the Italian authorities coordinating the rescue. Prime Minister Muscat took the lead in seeking an ad hoc European solution to stop an impending humanitarian crisis. And he succeeded in an unprecedented manner, with nine countries agreeing to help Malta shoulder the responsibility of the migrants on board.

The fact these countries helped is testimony to the diplomatic skills that happened behind the scenes, which was praised by the European Council, desperate for people not to become part of a political tug-of-war. But what will happen next time? Will we get the same help?

Malta cannot deal with the migration situation alone. The humanitarian challenges require a multi-faceted European Union solution with long-term strategies to address the wider crisis.

I welcome the agreement of the European leaders at the last European Council who declared that all vessels must respect the applicable laws, and must allow the Libyan coastguard to carry out its duties without obstructing its operations.

But much more needs to be done. No one wants any more migrant deaths at sea. All member states and relevant entities need to get together once and for all, under international law, helping countries of origin not be a place people want to flee from – and those who do flee not encountering the unimaginable horror on their journeys before human traffickers abandon them at sea.

It all boils down to means of safe and responsible rescue. Making sure those who need asylum get it – and where they do, integration policies allow multi-culturalism to thrive for the benefit of all.

Having taken in the second highest amount of migrants in the European Union proves that Malta is already doing its bit. And we have come together as a country to do it, without the rise of the ‘right’ that other countries are worryingly witnessing. But the European Union now needs to do more. All its member states do, not just a few.

David Stellini, Opposition spokesman on European Affairs and Brexit

Absolutely not. But who is? No member State really is. This is also why the EU has a number of structures which can help should such a situation arise. This question reminds me of former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, former ministers Carm Mifsud Bonnici and Tonio Borg and their top aide Richard Cachia Caruana. It reminds me of the vision and determination they had in 2010 to convince all other EU governments to accept that the EU asylum agency (EASO) be based in Malta. At the time, also through the work of Jean-Pierre Schembri, a civil servant then working at our Permanent Representation in Brussels and who was tasked with this dossier, Malta had made a tremendous lobbying campaign and managed to win the seat of this agency which today has a budget of around €100 million a year.

With this asylum agency based in Malta, we are assured that any help requested by the Maltese government could be given almost instantly. The EU asylum agency exists exactly for this very reason. Its main task is to help EU countries handle a sudden influx of migrants. However, it won’t give assistance if not requested. It waits for any specific EU government to ask for help first.

I would expect the Maltese authorities to ask EASO for support if it is faced with a sudden influx of migrants. I also expect the Maltese government to have at least some level of preparedness.

Those who have a right for international protection wouldn’t need to risk life and limb to arrive on the European shores

Given the EU has not yet adopted a permanent quota system (in other words mandatory burden sharing) and given that human smugglers are highly organised and efficient, it is fundamentally important that the Maltese government does not send any signal to smugglers that Malta has opened its borders. This is why disembarkation platforms on the African continent are really important. If these disembarkation platforms are run by the European Union, we can be sure that they do respect human rights and all related international conventions. 

The European Union has intelligence-gathering capabilities and what they show is that there is a highly organised and highly efficient network of human smugglers, perfectly capable of moving operations from one country to another in a matter of days, not weeks. These smugglers are also openly marketing their business on Facebook and other social media networks.

We have seen over the past years, migrations flows moving from the Eastern flank of the Mediterranean to the centre, then to the West and back to the centre. When any EU Mediterranean government tightens its migration policy these hardened criminals shift their operations to other north African states to target another EU country with more open policies. From these intelligence reports one can see sudden shifts happening within days of a change in an EU country government. They also show conversations on social media (mostly Facebook) discussing comments by key politicians like Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

It is estimated there are thousands of migrants ready to leave North Africa for Europe. This means that if any one European Mediterranean country shows it is open to migrants they would arrive, and arrive in thousands. And when they arrive, one would realise that they are mostly economic migrants with no rights whatsoever for international protection. One would end up with thousands of migrants seeking greener pastures in Europe with very slim chances of repatriating them. 

If we haven’t learned these lessons by now I don’t think we will ever learn them. It happened in the past and will continue to happen over and over again. 

The way forward is to have EU-run and EU-funded disembarkation platforms in non-EU countries that respect human rights. It would help us separate economic migrants from those who truly deserve international protection. Those who have a right for international protection wouldn’t need to risk life and limb to arrive on the European shores. They would be transferred in a safe and legal way.

If you would like to put any questions to the two main parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

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