An exodus in perspective | Jon Hoisaeter

Wary of the problems, and negative sentiment, that the immigration issue will continue to stir up among the people, UNHCR’s representative in Malta Jon Hoisaeter also pines for a more sober, optimistic outlook on the situation.

Following a long lull in immigration arrivals, the sudden arrival of 812 migrants from Libya in the space of two days has raised fears of the “biblical exodus” scenario originally conjured up by Italy’s right wing Interior Minister Roberto Maroni during the first days of the democratic uprising against the Libyan dictator. 

Jon Hoisaeter disagrees that we are dealing with anything of this sort.

“While Maroni was right to say that there would be many people leaving Libya, this does not mean that they are all refugees.”

In fact, nearly 400,000 people have crossed Libya’s borders in the past few weeks, mostly by land… but only a minority of these were refugees.

“Many were on the way home to Egypt, and around 80,000 were assisted to find their way back home.”

But the crisis in Libya has created a veritable confusion, with people failing to distinguish between economic migrants leaving Tunisia to Lampedusa, foreign workers stranded on Libya’s border wanting to go home and Sub-Saharan migrants who have nowhere to return to.

All of these are lumped together in the popular psyche under the ‘illegal immigrants’ misnomer.

Both l-orizzont and In-Nazzjon referred to the 812 asylum seekers who arrived in Malta on two boats this week as illegal immigrants. 

Hoisaeter disagrees with the use of this term for the Somalis and Eritreans, who constitute the vast majority of the 812 people crossing from Tripoli to Malta.

“It is quite clear that these persons are coming from a country (Libya) were their life and safety could be in danger. Added to this, they cannot return to Somalia and Eritrea –  their countries of origin – where the experience the same problem. On the face of it, they are people who are very much in need of protection.”

What seems to escape people who immediately refer to these people as ‘illegals’ is that seeking asylum is a fundamental human right.

“It has nothing to do with having a passport, visa or identification documents. This is secondary. It is true that most of these people do not have these documents. Probably, if they had a visa, they would not even be refugees.”

He also blames the ill-will of a section of the Maltese public on the constant labeling of migrants as illegals.

“What do you expect, if the Maltese are constantly told that these are illegal immigrants? Why is the ‘illegal’ label used with regards to people who qualify – by right – for protection?”

TV coverage of the mass exodus of Tunisian economic migrants in Lampedusa has also compounded matters. UNHCR makes a distinction between Sub-Saharans leaving Libya and these people.

“Tunisia has, in a way, already gone through the most traumatic part of the change. They are in a phase of consolidating these changes… generally, Tunisians are not leaving for the same reasons people are leaving Libya. Many of these Tunisians are looking for better life and work opportunities. We are not saying that we do not understand the urgency of their needs, but that they are a different category of people, whose movement is governed by different rules.”

In the past, UNHCR was very critical of the Italian government’s push backs policy, in which Gaddafi’s government played a crucial role. Through this policy, hundreds of potential migrants were intercepted at sea and sent to Libya, thus being denied the right to seek asylum. In Malta, both major political parties welcomed this measure, which had brought immigration to a halt. Yet with Italy actively participating in the military intervention against Libya – with the agreement ground to a halt – boats have started to arrive again.

For Hoisaeter, the push back agreement was an attempt to block people from accessing their right to seek asylum. 

“People sent back to Libya had no access to a functioning asylum procedure… that is why we could never accept a system which did not access the needs and claims of those who were intercepted at sea.”

He claims that Italy was disregarding all the reports coming out of Libya about squalid detention centres, and that people were even sent back to the desert as soon as they were sent back to Libya.

“We were not saying that everyone arriving on boats should be given refugee status. What we were saying that they should have a chance to get their claims accessed.”

He acknowledges that this system played a big role in the decrease in arrivals in both Italy and Malta.

“But we would also say that this meant an increase in the people in need of protection who denied of access to protection.”

Some politicians have justified this agreement on the grounds that it led to a decrease in the number of dangerous crossing and dealt a blow to smugglers.

Hoisaeter describes human trafficking as the “ultimate in exploitation” which exploits the most vulnerable categories of people for financial gain. “As we speak there are two boats missing and bodies have been found…I am very concerned about that.”

But he disagrees that this should be used as an excuse to deny people protection if they need it.

One of the solutions proposed by the Maltese government (long before the current crisis) was that of having asylum seekers apply for protection in the EU in African countries such as Libya. One of the reasons given was to avoid these dangerous crossings and to undermine human trafficking.

One possible long term solution UNHCR is willing to consider is that applications could be processed in embassies of countries like France and Germany, who would then take on a number of these migrants.

“If this could be organised, it would be a very good thing, but it should not come at a cost of removing the right of those seeking asylum when they are assessing Europe – it should not be an excuse to close down European borders to people seeking protection. It all boils to the fact that seeking asylum is a fundamental right.”

UNHCR also tried to run a resettlement programme through which it could send refugees from Libya directly to countries like the USA.

But even in this process, the Libyan authorities were creating difficulties. 

UNHCR was also expelled in Libya last year and even prior to this, the UNHCR was only “tolerated” to operate in Libya, but was never granted official recognition.

“This was a signal to us that Libya was not prepared to take its asylum responsibilities seriously… they did not want to accept people as refugees. Despite a few improvements, most of our attempts at dialogue were turned down.”

Even Gaddafi himself went on record saying that Libya does not have any refugees and that all foreigners in Libya were guest workers or economic migrants.

Neither has Libya signed the Geneva Convention, which lays down a framework for protecting refugees.

But Hoisaeter points out that unlike Libya, some Asian countries who have not signed the Geneva Convention still take their responsibilities on refugees seriously.

According to a number of reports, Sub-Saharan immigrants in Libya were mistaken for the African mercenaries used to brutally crush the rebellion. This resulted in a situation where Africans took the brunt of both the regime and the rebels.

The UNHCR does not have the people on the ground to confirm this, but it has received a number of reports of Africans being afraid of going out for fear of being mistaken for mercenaries.

“They felt so uncertain of their security because they had heard of people attacked at check points, house searches and being mistaken for mercenaries.”

The situation in the eastern part of Libya was worse in the early days of the rebellion.

“In the beginning they definitely felt targeted, as Africans, but in Benghazi the reports we are receiving is that the situation has now improved.”
One possible reason for the latest exodus is that the Gaddafi regime has opened the immigration flood gates to punish western nations like Italy for the current military intervention.

Hoisaeter has no proof that this is happening, although he does not exclude that some elements of the Libyan government could be turning a blind eye to smugglers and human traffickers.

He also recalls Gaddafi’s threat to Europe: that he will swamp the continent with African migrants if he was not given €5 billion, so he cannot exclude the possibility of Gaddafi using immigrants to send a political message.

What is certian is that people are leaving Libya because they are afraid. And while young adult males constituted the vast majority of arrivals in previous years, in the case of the two boats which arrived last week, the number of minors and women has increased dramatically.

While in previous years women and children represented only 12% of arrivals, this figure has now risen to 31%.

The greater number of women and children could be an indication that their communities are sending the most vulnerable categories first.

UNHCR has pronounced itself against keeping people escaping from Libya in detention.

“We consider that detention in these cases is neither appropriate nor necessary.”

While he accepts the need to screen them in a closed environment, he sees no need to keep them behind bars after their identity has been established.

“I do not exclude that if they are not kept in detention, some immigrants could disappear. But when one weighs the human cost of keeping 800 traumatised people in detention against the risk of some of them escaping, I would opt for the latter.”

Neither is the risk of these people ‘disappearing’ great because most of them qualify for humanitarian protection, and are not likely to be sent back.

“Unlike migrants from countries like Tunisia, it is not likely that these people are sent back. On the face of it, it seems that most qualify for protection.”

Hoisaeter also poses the question: “is detention a good way to start an integration process in Maltese society?”

That said, he welcomes various improvements made in the detention regime, which include a separation between men and women, and that minors are not kept in detention.

The fact that the EU appears to be unwilling to help Malta and Italy in what is perceived to be a mass exodus of migrants arriving to Europe’s southern borders is a major local concern.

Hoisaeter prefers the term “responsibility sharing” to the more negative connotations of “burden sharing” since immigration can also be asset, and not just a problem.

The problem is only partially addressed through re-settlement programmes by countries like the US, who accept refugees after they have been granted asylum in countries like Malta. But this does not apply to asylum seekers who have just arrived at Europe’s border, and individual countries – like Malta – are lumped with the responsibility of processing their applications. 

“This means that if your border is exposed to these flows, you end up taking much of the responsibilities. This constitutes a gap in European policy, and there isn’t a very effective mechanism to address it.”

So far all attempts to address this have been voluntary and through this mechanism, Germany and France have taken a total of 100 refugees of their own free will.

“We need to move from this to a more organised system. This is a European challenge, on which European countries have to work upon.”

But he warns against simplistic arguments.

“It is a bit easy to say: ‘look, Malta and Italy are receiving a lot of migrants and therefore it should all be about other countries swooping in to take them away’… we have to realise that many other countries receive migrants. Last year, Sweden accepted 30,000 people. It is a myth that immigration is only a problem of the south.”

But he acknowledges that Malta’s small size and higher density aggravates the problem.

“According to a calculation I made, 800 new migrants in Malta constitute the equivalent of 120,000 migrants in Italy.”

Another misconception is that immigrants only arrive by boat as we regularly see on the TV screens in Malta and Italy. In reality, many immigrants travel by plane.

“In some Northern countries there could be hundreds of immigrants arriving by plane in the space of a month but it does not make the headlines in the same way as an arrival of a boatful of migrants. Boat arrivals tend to be seen as more dramatic.”

Another problem which will make responsibility sharing mandatory is the increasing skepticism and negative feelings towards migration in other European countries.

“That does not help other countries to come forward and agree to take up more people. Most countries in the north are having big problems with their own populations and are concerned about how the media portrays these issues.”

Due to this climate, Hoisaeter is not “too optimistic” that Europe will come up with an immediate and effective mechanism to address this problem.

“But if Malta and Italy continue to receive boats, I am quite hopeful and certain that more support will be forthcoming.”

Hoisaeter is aware that many Maltese are afraid that the situation could get out of control if these arrivals are followed by thousands of others.

While understanding these concerns, he insists that we are far from reaching that stage, pointing out that the number of Sub-Saharan migrants living in Malta is less than 4,000, which amounts to less than 1% of the population. The major problem for these migrants is that since they are constantly labeled as illegals – irrespective of their status – they find it difficult to integrate in the labour market.

“They are perceived as a burden, rather than as potential contributors. Why not let them contribute to society? They want to pay tax, so that they can also receive benefits.”

Hoisaeter notes that Malta, like most other western countries, has an ageing population where by 2060 there will only be two workers for each pensioner.UNHCR

“Asylum is not the only answer to this problem but one cannot ignore that there certain long term benefits of immigration.” And immigrants are also taking jobs which many Maltese are no longer willing to carry out.

Hoisaeter would prefer it if the migration discussion also accommodated for more positive outlooks on the issue. The problem may well be that concern about migration tends to dominate the headlines only when Malta is faced with dramatic arrivals, but ebbs away from political debate as soon as arrivals drop. Perhaps we have missed an opportunity to discuss the issue calmly during last year’s lull in arrivals. Will we have another chance? Probably yes, says Hoisaeter, who makes a strong case for a more sober assessment of the immigration theme

@Malta tal Maltin: not really the most coherent aren't you? Let me try and explain to you one more time. If you are fleeing from a war (i.e. Libya) you are not an "illegal" because (please, try to follow up now) you are actually escaping from war. Get it? War?! I'm pretty sure that the Libyan visa office is not working as it should. At the moment, people are really trying hard not to get killed. So (and this is the crux of the argument) if someone escapes from war you cannot send them back from where they came from. why? Because there is a war!!! In the case of the Tunisians who came from Tunisia to Lampedusa. That is a different story. Since they are not in need of protection (here is where international law kicks in) you can actually repatriate them if they came without valid documents. Repatriation between Italy and Tunisia is currently suspended because of the regime change in Tunisia, once that resumes you can repatriate them. now you can get hysterical as much as you. and i'm pretty sure that you and the rest of the"send them back" crew know a thing or two about getting hysterical. but reality is these people need of protection and Malta has a legal obligation to provide them with protection. does it stops here? Of course not. there are a number of solutions and if you just bother to go through the interview you might find one or two.
RJ international law is changed by states not obeying it. If enough states decide not to allow illegal immigrants in then it becomes a rule of customary international law. I am sure that there are a majority of States that do not allow illegal immigrants to stay and repatriate them or turn a blind eye because they are in mainland Europe and they travel elsewhere. I suggest that you try to enter the USA and claim asylum and see whether they put you back on the same plane. So why should we keep on lumping illegal immigrants when other countries send them back? We have the right according to the Refugee Convention to decide to make reservations to it and the Maltese Government did just that, but then it repealed them on orders from the EU which also ordered the obliging Maltese Government to apply its Dublin II Convention that provides that the State into which the illegal immigrants first claim asylum have to keep them because the EU knew that we would be on its frontier and lump all the illegal immigrants coming from Africa. So yes RJ, we can disregard the EU Dublin II Convention and also the EU and either re-establish our previous reservations or get out of the Refugee Convention as we have every right and duty to do to preserve our country and society from the illegal immigrants invasion. If the EU doesn't like it they can kick us out and do us a very great favor. By illegal immigrants I mean those from any continent and not only from Africa.
No one disagrees with Jon Hoisaeter. The fact of the matter is that the United Nations is not doing enough to tackle the root problem. It was quite quick to grant three European countries the go ahead and meddle in a civil war in Libya so why can’t the UN do the same with the other trouble spots in Africa? Thousands of people in other African countries die each year through civil conflict and wars and yet we do not hear the UN stepping in directly to help and topple repressive African governments. As far as we are concerned we are a very small country doing our best to fit in this so called EU of Solidarity but we find it nauseating having to remind the big club members of their obligations in this matter. If hundreds of so called refugees come or way and alarm bells go its because we know that if thousands were to follow this county would be immediately destabilised. And with the civil war in Libya this wave of illegal immigration is a potential disaster.
Of course, Jon is right when he says that seeking asylum is a fundamental right. No dispute here. But it has to be for a Convention reason. What is at issue here is whether people seeking asylum are genuine refugees. The absence of a passport and a visa is, however, troubling. Is it at all possible that they want to hide their identity? I wish Jon and the rest of the bleeding hearts take a sensible approach to this matter. What about the criminal aspect of trafficking? Is it at all possible that this whole thing is a racket which is being blessed by those who have created a career around the trafficking of people?
Tell this to your Government please! Charity begins at home! I help people in Egypt, Lebanon, Ghana and Malta; I do it out of my own free will and I good about it, but the minute politically appointed NGOs( United Nations is political) tried to bully us into submission, we feel insulted. We already help a lpt of people, but given that you are dumping 'burden sharing 'on us because we are tiny, we will resist your coercion.
RJ , I think you are not understanding what i said, I say it in brief- as in the end , it will be the omni potent omni sapience Lawrence Gonzi who will decide. To me all are the same, from all countries of the world. also I don't like th Saying writing third world.What third world? we are all living in one world. I will keep on saying , this, " who enters a country without documents , he/she is entering illegally in another country. If he or she is saying that he/she is escaping from war, what you do? you belive them straight away? or you put them in detention, until they will eb verified whom they are? who will trust soemone that he does not know? You must even be careful to trust peopel that you know, suppose whom you don't know. Than after alll verifications will be kinda concluded than one can see if he/she deserves the refugee status , and only a small amount depending on the size of the country. In the case of the farts , I think you know what i meant :)
The present representative of UNHCR in Malta has to battle against the bad name his predecessors gave UNHCR. The Depasquale report on the riots by illegal immigrants in Hal Safi details the role of then UNHCR representative Michele Manca de Nissa before, during and after the riots. UNHCR has never replied to that report. Then there was Dr Neil Falzon who took the role of leader of the Opposition, attacking the government, directly and through inspired articles on illegal immigrants, both in the local and foreign press. Laura Boldrini made an ill-judged trip to Malta to call to order the Maltese press on the subject of illegal immigrants and her subsequent statements on Malta were more the fruit of passion than reason. The present representative has put on sheep’s clothing but sometimes the wolf’s ears are visible, e.g. when he is quoted by the latest ENAR report speaking about a subject other than refugees.
Another thing those fleeing Libya might as well flee to the East towards Benghazi after all that is were democracy in Libya was born, appart from the fact that the EU is involved over there.
Will this smart ass tell us how many asylum seekers , cum illegals, is he hosting at his own home. We don't need smart alecs like him to tell us what is right or wrong, after all he ' s got a job thanks to these illegals.
@silver surfer. The full interview is on the paper. Maltatoday usually uploads their paper stories a day or two after. so I think this interview will be uploaded on tuesday. I agree on you with sharing the burden. In fact a number of refugees in Malta do get resettled elsewhere in Europe and i'm sure that no one is arguing against this mechanism or more solidarity. But to send people to war is just killing them. This was the whole argument. BTW: good one on the "RJ" @malta tal-Maltin: I'm familiar with the Libyan borders (it is one of the perks that comes with google ...). What you do not seem familiar with is international law and the current situation in Libya.
Dear RJ, Libya has borders with 6 other countries through which the illegal immigrants could go to other African countries. For your information Libya has borders with Tunisia, Algeria, Chad, Niger, Sudan and Egypt. Now don't try to tell me that all the African countries are at war with each other or that all African countries are having a civil war. After all, why don't the illegal immigrants go to the oil-rich Middle East countries? Why do they want to come to Malta and Europe?
R.J...Hmm, nice name habib. Who gave to you Dr.Tabone after his largest Airline purchase blunder? Well, jokes apart, RJ, this guy (up here) has a point but he is not saying everything as well. Its true, you cannot send back refugees or people fleeing their war-torn country, but...WE ARE PART OF THE EU ...are we not? This German or Austrian Guy can easily make a claim with his organization that Malta cannot handle these 'refugees' on its own. Therefore the EU needs to carry the burden with us!...I think at least there we agree...unless you are Maltese who lives in another country and DO NOT give a hoot about Malta.
Dear Falzon Silvio: i'm not sure how loud your farts are but sure enough you are shooting from the hip. The majority of the people coming from Libya are Somali and Eritrean. Get it?They are not Chinese ... they are fleeing from war. You can't send them back to war. Some 400,000 fled to the borders and 800 came to Malta by boat. Had they came from Tunisia, then the argument could have been different. Now, whether Malta can take all the asylum seeker is an other thing and is a different argument. In that case there are different solution; such as resettlement to other countries. solidarity is always welcomed and needed but to say "send them back to Libya" is equivalent to say "kill them". If you wish people dead, then maybe you should do some soul searching.
With due respect, this gentleman should take the illegal immigrants to his own country. Are we going to keep taking in illegal immigrants and stack people on each other? Whatever this gentleman says we consider them to be illegal and no one is going to change our opinion about them. What if they are criminals and terrorists since we know absolutely nothing about them because they destroy their papers? Dear RJ, these people should do what the Maltese did when we were embroiled in wars when we were still a colony. Go back to their countries and fight. That's what Maltese persons did and that's what these people should do. Running away is not going to solve their countries problems. Michael001 I agree with you.
This is not a matter of send them back or not- First one have to see who are realy these people. How can one trust someone who don't even have identification? you cannot even trust who have identification suppose peopel who have nothing to show. Than Malta is a small island, small land for the population we have. wheer si the land here ? allreday we are living crowded, with one farts the neighbour hears all - One must first indentify them , than will be given refugee status only when one has fully identified him etc.. And Malta can keep just a few , cause we are such a small island .
perhaps there are good samaritans who are willing to accept some of these illegal Unknown people to his home? providing them with accomadation in his home , with food drink and health care? I think that would be great that soem good samaritans will be fully responsable to take them in his home provding them all they need with his expenses, Anyways this is on the Goverment desicion , his desicion will effect the whole country.
People fleeing from Libya are fleeing because of war. They are automatically seeking refugee and Malta has a legal obligation to grant access to asylum. People saying: "send them back" show a clear ignorance on the current situation. Sent them back to where? to war?
Albert Zammit
With all due respect to this officer, who is doing a job, and an important one, at that, he has to realise the following: 1. The Maltese citizens also have a right to live a decent life in their own country which is already severely over-populated; 2. The Maltese citizens are already facing huge problems with regard to the economic crisis and this extra burden on our shoulders is unnecessary and grossly unfair; in fact, to date, we, as taxpayers, are still in the dark as to how much money the Maltese government is really spending on these illegals; 3. The Maltese citizens have a right to put their minds at rest as to know who is entering the island - for all we know, there may be criminals and spies (not that there's anything to spy in our country but that's not important) entering, in the guise of illegals; 4. The country, due to its size and due to its limited resources, cannot, like other countries, afford to grand asylum; if it does, it is with the strict understanding that the asylum seeker would be able to move on, out of the country; 5. We are already full of immigrants and the insular society that is Malta, whether you like it or not, is not prepared for this onslaught; 6. Malta, unlike other Mediterranean islands, is a mainland. Unlike Lampedusa, Malta is not an outskirt of the main country, but is a country in itself; 7. Whether you say or think otherwise, or not, these immigrants are illegals in the true sense of the word. 8. You are not a Maltese citizens; therefore, with respect, you do not tell us or preach at us what we should be doing. What is your nationality? Good: take them there!
Mr. Jon Hoisaeter, you said, “What do you expect, if the Maltese are constantly told that these are illegal immigrants? Why is the ‘illegal’ label used with regards to people who qualify – by right – for protection?” allright fair enough for protection, yes right. So soem can be in real need of protection , yes, but some can be who ever they can such as terrorists or criminals escaping from thier countries ,take the opportinity to infiltrate.. Mr jon you know how it is difficult to enter into the schengen for third country people even with passport? you know how much documenst they need and how much money they need to come to just a holiday? health insurance everything.. Than you come and say to allow them? I am not against them but as i said theer may be soem who are in real need of protection but some can be criminals.. Is it fair than Mr.Jon, those can be allowed without money without documents than others who want to come heer for holiday from outside EU is so difficult for just a holiday? VISA first to come to a holiday , than you say these illigal immigrants have the right ? and they are not enetring illegally? try to go to a country without docs mr.jon and see what happens, even with docs they search and verify you suppose without docs. They need to be investigated fully before allowing them in the streets, what you think, that thye will eb fully integrated with the maltese community? who aer these people? how do we know who they really are? Mr. jon if you think and say that about Malta why don't you tell your goverment and take them all in your country? its always good to help people, BUT first you must be sure who are these people, than you can start helping them. fundamental rights in Malta? ahhahaaha, here are no Equal rights Mr.Jon. Malta is not a secular state so there cannot be equal rights. read the Maltese concordat with the vatican ;-)
He can first label them 'legal' and then take them to the country where he lives!