The big ‘immigrant invasion’ lie

In 2014 – a year since Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission was downsized and replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton – Malta experienced just 568 arrivals: almost the same as in 2003.

Statistics recently published by MaltaToday should serve to place public perceptions of ‘immigration’ into some form of context.

The first set of statistics concerns a breakdown of asylum requests received by Maltese authorities since joining the EU in 2003. At a glance, these reveal that refugee arrivals have dwindled to pre-accession levels since 2014 – after hitting an all-time high of 2,775 in 2008.

In 2014 – a year since Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission was downsized and replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton – Malta experienced just 568 arrivals: almost the same as in 2003.

Not only has the number of asylum requests drastically fallen in recent years, but the profile of the typical applicant has also changed significantly. Between January and August 2015, the office of the Commissioner for Refugees handled 865 applications requesting asylum. Of these applications, the majority – 65% – were from Libyan nationals (534), ostensibly flying in to Malta; the next main category were Syrians (104), and the third highest number of applicants were Ukrainians, 40.

This points towards a significant shift in immigration patterns in recent years, when the overwhelming majority of asylum seekers hailed from sub-Saharan Africa, and came primarily on boats leaving from Libya.

Part of this change is certainly attributable to a change in policy by Italy, which since 2014 has agreed to take in all persons rescued or apprehended trying to reach Europe through the central Mediterranean channel. Even here, the figures demand a rethink of our previous perceptions of a ‘crisis’: on a single day in August 2015, the Italian coastguard co-ordinated the rescue of 3,000 asylum seekers: more than the total highest arrivals experienced by Malta in an entire year.

Another factor is the dramatic escalation of conflict in areas such as Libya and Syria, which now account for the highest number of persons requesting humanitarian aid.

Meanwhile, real-time data supplied by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) also shows that fewer and fewer asylum seekers and refugees are being hosted in Malta’s open centres: in 2010, there were 2,220 people living in camps in Hal Far and Marsa; that number has fallen year by year, with just 740 living in open centres as at August 2015.


The UNHCR now estimates that the total number of refugees living in Malta currently stands at 6,000.

This fact alone should suffice to dispel the impression, often perpetuated by politicians, that Malta is or was experiencing an ‘invasion’ of asylum seekers. Even at the height of the so-called emergency, Malta only received 2,775 arrivals in a year: a far cry from the tens of thousands now entering the EU at other points in the space of a few days. 

Even when calculated in proportion to Malta’s population, the figures were all along manageable. But it is the second statistic that illustrates just how exaggerated the claims of an ‘unmanageable crisis’ have been all along.

It now transpires that since 2011, a staggering 75,000 visas have been issued by the Maltese embassy in Libya. Peaking at 44,789 requests and 37,486 visas issued, 2013 alone saw half of all visas issued in the past four years.

Admittedly, while both sets of statistics refer broadly to immigration, not all visas issued by the Libya embassy were for humanitarian purposes. Indeed there is evidence that not all of them were legal either: the Maltese embassy in Tripoli is currently at the centre of police investigations into an alleged visa scam, whereby a Libyan criminal ring appears to have been approaching Libyans with the offer of an immediate Maltese visa for €1,500.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Malta’s operational capacity to admit and provide for such large numbers has very evidently always been sufficient: even for much higher numbers of arrivals than we actually experienced. 

To put the matter bluntly: one cannot realistically dish out 75,000 visas in four years, while simultaneously arguing that the island is ‘full up’, and cannot possibly cope with a much smaller number of ‘irregular’ arrivals.

From this perspective, Interior Minister Carmelo Abela’s explanation for Malta’s abnormally high visa allocation to Libyan nationals does not quite justify the claims – so often made by his own government – that Malta cannot afford to shoulder its asylum responsibilities.

“Malta has strong economic and business ties with Libya and after the uprising, several companies relocated to Malta,” Abela told the press. “This led to businessmen requesting visas to bring their workers to Malta whilst others come to attend company meetings. Most of the time, they bring their families with them.”

Given that the present government has traditionally adopted a much more restrictive policy regarding asylum seekers in general, this application of different weights and measures is hard to justify. At worst, it seems to vindicate the scathing criticism Malta had suffered at the hands of European cartoonists at the time of the IIP scheme: when Malta was portrayed as a country eager to receive millionaires willing to buy European passports, while simultaneously threatening to push-back genuine refugees fleeing war and devastation.

The only possible conclusion is that Malta has been living a lie all these years. The time has come to readjust our perceptions to reality.