In good times and bad, migration is Malta’s top worry since 2013

Does concern on migration reflect fluctuations in boat arrivals? JAMES DEBONO and NICOLE MEILAK find that this is not always the case

Immigration filled a void after the newly-elected Labour government reduced energy bills and the economy started on its unprecedented growth path
Immigration filled a void after the newly-elected Labour government reduced energy bills and the economy started on its unprecedented growth path

The Eurobarometer regularly asks the Maltese to list their top two national concerns.

In the latest survey conducted in July 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, 58% of Maltese listed migration as their top worry, compared to just 25% for health.

But does concern on migration reflect fluctuations in boat arrivals?

Since the election of a Labour government in 2013, immigration has topped the list of Maltese national concerns in all 15 Eurobarometer surveys bar one. The only exception was a survey in November 2017, which saw crime emerge as the topmost concern in the wake of the assassination of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia.

This contrasts with pre-2013 concerns, when immigration only topped the list twice in ten surveys held between 2008 and 2012, eclipsed by concerns on electricity tariffs, inflation and the economic situation following the financial and economic crisis of 2009.

This may be an indication that immigration filled a void after the newly-elected Labour government reduced energy bills and the economy started on its unprecedented growth path. While concern on immigration between 2008 and 2012 coincided with fluctuations in the number in boat arrivals, this has not been the case after 2013.

Indeed, the period after 2013 is marked by a heightened increase in legal labour migration from the EU and non-EU countries, as the table shows. This form of migration far outstripped ‘illegal’ arrivals of asylum seekers, whose entry system to Malta is handicapped by the circumstances of emergency it takes place in.

Concern over immigration under a Nationalist government between 2008 and 2012 generally coincided with fluctuations in the number of boat arrivals. A dramatic increase in arrivals in 2008 pushed immigration to the top of the list, but fell to fourth and fifth place in 2010 after arrivals fell to 47, following a pushback agreement between the Italian Silvio Berlusconi government and the Gaddafi regime.

But MEP elections in 2009 further contributed to migration concerns, after Labour turned migration into its top campaign issue. A Eurobarometer survey held in June 2009 saw concern on migration peaking at 49%.

In contrast, under a Labour government concern on migration peaked at 76% and 65% in two surveys held in 2015, despite a sharp drop in arrivals following an agreement between the Letta and Renzi governments, which saw Italy taking in all migrants rescued in Malta’s Search and Rescue Zone.

One factor contributing to this surge in concern on migration was the radicalisation of political discourse on migration following the aborted pushback by Joseph Muscat in July 2013. In fact, concern on migration increased dramatically from 29% in May 2013 to a staggering 63% in November 2013.

Another contributing factor was the surge in foreign workers. Despite the lull in boat arrivals in 2015, Malta registered the highest positive net migration – difference between immigration and emigration – for the decade at 4,176. That year, 12,831 migrant workers arrived in Malta in 2015 – more than three times as much as a decade earlier. And the surge of concern on migration also coincided with a surge of terrorist attacks linked to Islamic fundamentalism in 2015.

Concern on migration did drop to 33% in May and November 2017 in a year where boat arrivals had dropped to 20. Moreover, increased numbers in 2019 saw a record 3,405 boat arrivals, which saw concern on migration growing again to 65%.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, concern on migration remained higher than that about health and economic situation in a survey held in July. The survey held in July coincided with a lull in infections at the beginning of summer and a more hawkish stance by Prime Minister Robert Abela, who used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext to block ports while refusing to save migrants in distress.

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