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Malta is the European Union member state with the smallest population and the smallest land area. This, however, should not excuse the national government and the methods it has used to prevent migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea from reaching the island nation. While Malta reserves the right to refuse these migrants the ability to stay if they do not qualify for asylum, the process may take a while to decide whether or not they qualify.
An unexpected effect of the pandemic was a decrease in migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Currently, the number of migrants making the dangerous trip, often in vessels inadequate to make the journey, has risen once again. In the first quarter of 2023, 28,000 migrants arrived in the European Union through the Central Mediterranean route, triple the number that arrived during the same period in 2022. Malta has ignored ships potentially in distress, and just recently the same scenario has happened yet again. A boat with more than 400 migrants was in Malta’s Search and Rescue area of the Mediterranean Sea. While this does not look good for Malta, it is better than an incident that occurred in 2020. Maltese armed forces made a boat to leave at gunpoint after it received fuel in order to make the vessel go to Italy. The armed forces even gave the vessel the coordinates in order to reach Italy. Not only is it obligatory to help people in distress at sea under European Union legislation, it is also required under international law.
Outsourcing Border Control
Besides refusing to accept ships carrying migrants and redirecting them to Italy, Malta has found another way to make sure migrants do not reach the island. In order to repel migrants, the Malta Armed Forces have hired three private merchant vessels tasked with returning migrants back to Libya. Considering that the location in Libya was an active war zone, there is a very real possibility that some of those migrants could have legitimately obtained asylum status. Malta, however, never gave them the opportunity to state their case. Instead, despite the ship issuing mayday calls for 48 hours, the passengers were still not rescued by authoriti in Malta.
The three vessels did not work with the Malta Immigration Police and never completed any paperwork. All the ships would also turn off satellite tracking devices when in operation.
Conditions For Migrants In Detainment
For the migrants who do reach Malta, their treatment can be brutal. In detention centres in Malta, migrants have been physically beaten. This is alarming considering that when migrants first arrive in a European Union member state, they are presumed innocent of any crime. The migrants may also apply for refugee status, which will be granted if they meet the required conditions. Whether the migrant is looking for better economic opportunities or if they are indeed refugees, their human rights must be respected.
Other Member States Aren’t Innocent
To be fair to Malta, it is not the only member state that has acted poorly in order to keep migrants from arriving. Greece has invested in sound cannons to deter migrants from crossing the land border the member state shares with Turkey. Italy under President Meloni refused to let the vessel, the Ocean Viking, with 234 migrants aboard let passengers get off the boat. The boat was operated by a French NGO. It is clear that these member states feel overwhelmed. All the southern EU member states that border the Mediterranean Sea except for France have a GDP per capita below the average GDP per capita for all member states. Wealthier member states have not exactly been rushing to find a solution or help process migrants, and instead, the anti-migrant sentiment has been rising in these member states. One such member state is Denmark, which kept strict legislation in place despite a recent election.
NGO Ships Complicating The Situation
NGOs have been operating ships in the Mediterranean in order to help rescue migrants. This has caused some irritation, however, with southern EU member states stating that the nations that are the flag carriers of the member states need to step up. Cyprus, Greece, and Malta joined Italy in a statement that read: “all flag states (should) take responsibility in accordance with their international obligations.” Looking at the example of the Ocean Viking, this is a ship operated by a French NGO yet sails under the Norwegian flag.
Italy has taken an aggressive approach and has impounded NGO ships for disobeying orders. The most recent example is a ship, funded by Banksy. The ship named the Louise Michel (in honour of a French feminist anarchist), was ordered to head to Sicily after completing a rescue mission in Libya’s Search and Rescue area. Instead, it disobeyed this and completed another three missions in Malta’s Search and Rescue area before docking on the Italian island of Lampedusa, whose facilities for migrants have already run out of space. This violates recently passed legislation, which Italy is using as the basis for the seizure of the vessel. In 2020, a German vessel named the Iunta, operated by the German NGO Jugend Rettet, was also impounded on Lampedusa under claims of potentially facilitating illegal immigration. NGOs, besides rescuing migrants at sea, could also do more in their home nations to ensure that the responsibility for migrants will be shared and not be placed on a few member states.
Lack Of Unified EU Policy
Despite the fact that migration and asylum have been important topics in the European Union since 2015, when the number of arrivals rose, the EU still fails to create a unified migration policy. If southern European Union member states had the assurance that other member states would help them process migrants to see if they qualify for asylum status or not, there would not be this aversion to rescuing migrants. As most EU member states are in the Schengen Area except for Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, and Romania, this also makes it much easier for migrants to reach other member states with or without permission. Working together is the best strategy for the European Union to get through the crisis, along with offering the bloc the opportunity to demonstrate internationally the ability of member states to cooperate on difficult issues. Besides sharing the responsibility and not overburdening a few member states, a unified approach can also most work to prevent the future loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea.
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