Hardline stance from Malta against migration pact

Malta takes hardline stance at EP against new migration pact, says it provides no reassurances to frontline member states

People rescued by the Sea-Watch 3, disembarking in Malta in 2019
People rescued by the Sea-Watch 3, disembarking in Malta in 2019

Malta has taken a hard ine stance at the European Parliament against most of the leading elements of the New Pact on Asylum and Migration, which the Portuguese EU Presidency is determined to wrap up by the end of its term.

Speaking at a EP hearing on Thursday on the proposed pact, Malta balked at a harmonised one-size-fits-all solution, arguing that it provides no fair balance between solidarity and responsibility, and blasted the proposal’s five-day limit in which to process irregular migrants as completely unrealistic for frontline countries such as Malta.

Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri had originally been billed to deliver what was, in effect, a scathing indictment on the Pact, but it was Stephanie Bason, the Ministry’s Director of Policy Development and Programme Implementation who did so on his behalf.

Describing the European Commission’s proposal for harmonised solution to the bloc’s migratory woes as, in theory fair and reasonable, she warned, “We must bear in mind that the borders managed by different member states are not all the same. So what might work at an air or land border may not necessarily produce the same result in the context of maritime borders, which are often characterised by sudden and possibly large influxes and a multitude of search and rescue operations.”

The logistical and humanitarian considerations faced by member states with a maritime border are, she said, of a completely different nature compared to member states who deal exclusively with land and/or air borders.

“Therefore a harmonised solution is not necessarily the right solution, especially when circumstances differ so significantly from one member state to another. Of course we need to work on common principles but it is vital to always keep in sight particular difficulties faced by each and every member state.

“This is the only way we can find a solution that works for all.”

Given such circumstances, Bason said, the Pact needs to be made flexible, and if not flexible it needs to at least be adaptable to the different circumstances of different countries.

“Frontline member states already near a disproportionate burden in terms of security, health checks, identification, registration and reception of asylum seekers. Therefore the Pact needs to ensure effective solidarity towards frontline member states and a fair distribution of responsibility.

“This is extremely important. Unfortunately, as it is, the Pact does not provide sufficient reassurances to us frontline member states, and it definitely does not strike a fair balance between solidarity and responsibility.

“On responsibility, we are being told what means to use, how long procedures should last, and we are being monitored. But when it comes to solidarity member states appear to be free to pick and choose and their relocation remains voluntary, and this is what worries us the most.”

Proposed five-day pre-entry screening time ‘useless’

In Malta’s view, the Pact’s proposed pre-entry screening procedure is of particular concern to Malta and other member states on the bloc’s external borders.

The Screening Regulation establishes a pre-entry screening procedure applicable to third-country nationals who are either apprehended in connection with an unauthorised crossing of the external border of a member state, are disembarked in a member state’s territory following a search and rescue operation, or apply for international protection at external crossing points or in transit zones.

“The reality is that despite any legal fiction of non-entry we might create, these individuals are physically present on our territory following disembarkation, and we have no choice but to fulfil our international obligations,” Bason said.

“What all this means in practice is that the five-day time limit to pre-screen new arrivals is unrealistic, impractical and de facto useless, even when it can be extended for a further five days.

“That is because, firstly, migration by sea is more often than not characterised by sudden and possibly large influxes, which makes this deadline unrealistic to abide by, particularly during the summer months.

“Secondly, in practice it will be very difficult to guarantee a proper debriefing during the pre-entry screening period which factors in the relevant security checks within the proposal’s timeframes. They need to be interviewed.  This is often lengthy and could take not days, but months.

“We need to focus on effective procedures and not on efficient procedures.”

Practically all irregular migrants that reach Malta by boat are undocumented, Bason observed. As such, “their immediate return is impossible to effect regardless of whether they apply for international protection or not.

“We already know, based on our years of irregular migration management, that the proposed pre-entry screening will provide no added value in a Mediterranean maritime context.  Moreover, the pre-entry screening proposal will not deter irregular crossings or secondary movement, and it will definitely not lead to any tangible improvements in the field of return.

“Instead, it will only create further pressures on frontline member states.”

The fact that the procedure, in its current form, she said, applies to people disembarked following a search and rescue operation poses cause for concern in that such people fulfil entry conditions in terms of the Schengen Borders Code, which is that they should be allowed entry the territory on humanitarian grounds, and with reference to Malta’s international obligations.

“Therefore, on what grounds would they be legally precluded from entering the territory unless the member state in question was facing a national emergency, and how can this ever be done in the normal state of affairs?

Asylum procedures should be mandatory, to be applied at states’ discretion

On the proposed mandatory asylum procedures, Malta remains of the opinion that these should be applied at the discretion of member states, “with due regard to the circumstances at their borders and should therefore not be mandatory.

“Similar to the proposed pre-entry screening regulation asylum procedures would be logical and commendable, in theory, yet the proposal demonstrates a lack of awareness of the difficulties we face on the ground, particularly in the Mediterranean region.

“In Malta’s situation, arrivals are physically on our territory irrespective of whether they are in a border procedure or not. Therefore, flexibility is required to avoid overcrowded centres and mandatory border procedures should therefore remain optional

“Besides the nature of their borders, other special circumstances of the member states such as SARs and territory must not be underestimated. Border procedures are problematic for small island states like Malta.”

Moreover, Bason argued, the current proposal is “debatable” in terms of the confinement of large groups.

“According to the proposed procedure practically half of our arrivals would fall within the category of mandatory border procedures, which would create further pressure with the fast procedure requirement.

“Moreover, the same category of migrants will also not be eligible for relocation as proposed in the solidarity mechanism. The timelines provided do not take into account large inflows of arrivals in a short span of time.

She asked, “Has there been any evaluation on the feasibility of having such procedures implemented with around 2,000 arrivals at one go, as we have seen in recent weeks?

“Frontline member states should not be obliged to assume increased responsibilities at the external border without being able to count on solidarity measures appropriate to their needs, effective and mandatory measures mainly through relocation.”

Ewropej Funded by the European Union

This article is part of a content series called Ewropej. This is a multi-newsroom initiative part-funded by the European Parliament to bring the work of the EP closer to the citizens of Malta and keep them informed about matters that affect their daily lives. This article reflects only the author’s view. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.

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