Getting the immigration numbers right

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat insisted in Rome on Monday that we must ‘get our numbers right’ on immigration. So why does he ignore the number of immigrants who have left Malta for other parts of Europe?

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Italian counterpart Enrico Letta
Prime Minister Joseph Muscat with Italian counterpart Enrico Letta

It's all about numbers... or so the prime minister claimed yesterday, in defence of his government's plans (thwarted by the European Court of Human Rights) to forcibly deport 45 Somali nationals to Libya without processing their asylum applications last week.

Addressing the foreign press in Rome, Joseph Muscat said that Malta "must get its numbers right on migration". He went on to describe as 'unsustainable' our national intake of 2,000 asylum seekers in the last 12 months, despite the fact that the same figure he himself cited as evidence of a crisis actually represents less than one-third of one per cent of Malta's entire population; and in any case, it must also be viewed in conjunction with unspecified numbers of immigrants who have since left the island.

Nonetheless, Muscat did have a valid point when he insisted that Malta's migrant statistics must be seen in their proper context and that any comparison to the much higher numbers received by other European countries must also take into account some proportionality to the country's indigenous population.

"Malta is worse off than Lampedusa because migrants cannot move to mainland Italy from Malta," he said. "We managed in our goal to attract attention to a problem that is unsustainable: 2,000 migrants in the last 12 months, equivalent to one million migrants arriving in Spain or Germany."

But given his own emphasis on the need for correct data, do these figures match up with reality? And more to the point, do they really represent a 'crisis'? As tends to be the case with statistics, the answer depends entirely on how such figures are interpreted.

Malta places third for incoming migration

At a glance, the raw statistics certainly do seem to suggest that Malta's influx of irregular migrants is proportionately greater than that of most (but not all) other European states. Eurostat figures issued last May (containing 2012 data, which represent a slightly higher influx than this year's) reveal that Malta's intake of migrants, measured as a proportion of the population as a whole, is the third highest in the EU after Luxembourg and Cyprus.

Not everyone agrees on this interpretation, however: Human Rights Watch claims that Malta's influx represents the single highest proportion of asylum seekers vis-à-vis national population... but it is not clear where HRW is getting its figures and why it should be more reliable than Eurostat.

Either way, it is perhaps unsurprising that all the top three countries have small indigenous populations (Malta being by far the smallest) compared to the rest of Europe. This in turn means that even the arrival of relatively small numbers present a high proportionality, a fact which, while interesting, has no direct bearing on whether the same numbers are 'unsustainable' or even problematic for the country concerned.

In fact it remains entirely debatable whether 'proportionality to the indigenous population' is even remotely reliable as an indication of the scale of the problem.

Regardless of what proportion they represent of the total population, arrival figures for Malta remain small by most international standards - the highest-ever annual influx, in 2009, amounted to less than 3,000. This year's statistics so far are lower than that; indeed they are lower than the corresponding figure for the first seven months of 2012, which in turn also indicates that the problem is diminishing, and not growing, over time.

And yet, the government reaction to the multiple arrivals over the past two weeks seemed to give the impression that the situation was getting worse, not better. This only raises the question of who is really getting his figures wrong in all this.

Emigration not considered

On another level, the numbers provided by the prime minister in that press conference -sketchy as they are - represent but a small fraction of the full barrage of facts and figures that would also have to be factored into any serious debate about immigration.

The numbers game is after all not only about the number of migrants reaching our shores - it is also about the number of migrants leaving Malta for other countries, a statistic that has been surprisingly absent from this debate so far.

Yet that number is far from insignificant. Jon Hoisaeter of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, argues that a sizeable proportion of Malta's incoming asylum seekers do not represent a long-term threat, for the simple reason that they do not actually remain here for the long term.

"All in all there have been around 17,000 arrivals since the entire phenomenon began just over 10 years ago," he told our Sunday edition. "I admit that constitutes a high figure, given the size of Malta. It is the same size, roughly, as the population of Mosta. But where are these people now? If they were all still here, shouldn't there be a town the size of Mosta populated only by immigrants? But this doesn't exist, because many of them have left... some through relocation programmes, but mostly on their own steam."

The first of these two categories can be precisely quantified. So far 2,000 refugees have been relocated: 1,300 to the USA and 700 to other European countries. From this perspective it is significant that Malta - despite registering the third-highest proportion of immigrants compared to other EU countries - has claimed, and received, by far the most assistance to date.

Neither Luxembourg nor Cyprus - nor any other European country for that matter - has so far received any assistance at all in the form of relocation, a fact which raises questions about Muscat's constant claims that Malta's problem has been 'ignored' by Europe.

Besides, Muscat's own definition of 2,000 people as 'unsustainable' must also be applied to the 2,000 who have been relocated so far. As Hoisaeter puts it, "You can't have it both ways. If the arrival of 2,000 migrants is described as a crisis, then surely the fact that 2,000 have since left for other countries cannot be considered insignificant. Yet this is how a lot of people seem to reason: they attach importance to the numbers of arrivals, and overlook the number of departures."

Leaving aside the 2,000 who have been relocated through international programmes, the figures cited by Muscat in Rome tell us absolutely nothing about the total number of asylum seekers who have landed in Malta but since moved on without any assistance at all.

Indeed there has been no attempt to quantify this figure, despite its undeniable relevance to perceptions that the country is experiencing a 'crisis'.

One relevant statistic - though in the absence of specific data, it can only be taken as a very rough indication - concerns the number of asylum seekers who have applied successfully for refugee status since the Refugee Commission started accepting applications in the late 1990s.

This number is 62%: this is by far the highest success rate registered in an EU member state (a fact which may also reflect the point of origin of most of Malta's irregular migrants, the Horn of Africa, which means they are often considered automatically eligible for protection).

Again, Muscat's advice on 'getting numbers right' is worth taking up with regard to this statistic too: 60% of 17,000 works out to around 10,200 people who have been given either refugee status or subsidiary or humanitarian protection... and all come complete with a degree of freedom of movement that is technically unavailable to those whose application was rejected.

How many of the 10,200 asylum seekers to have been granted protection since 2000 have since left Malta quietly and without anyone noticing? It is impossible to say, but given that the number of asylum seekers living among us is unlikely to be 17,000, one has to assume that the number to have already left Malta is not insignificant.

And this, again, does not take into account those failed asylum seekers who may have left the country without travel documents (just as they reached it in the first place). There are no reliable statistics for these people, which only reinforces Muscat's point that any debate on the real extent of the problem will be meaningless without access to the proper relevant numbers.

Yet another statistic that is relevant to this scenario, yet curiously absent from the prime minister's arguments yesterday, is the number of failed asylum seekers to have been repatriated - legally or illegally - over the past decade.

Malta admits to having deported 2,000 asylum seekers to their country of origin between 2002 and 2009. No official figures are available for 2009 to 2013, but this does not mean that no asylum seekers were deported. Apply the same rate of deportation to the last four years, and there should have been around 1,300 deportations since 2009.

These figures - tentative though they may be - must also be taken into consideration, if we are to 'get our numbers right' on immigration.

From this perspective, Muscat's insistence that Malta is experiencing a 'crisis' warrants closer scrutiny. If Malta survived the crisis of 2009 - when arrivals amounted to roughly double this year's - why are we making such a fuss about a relatively modest influx precisely now? And if the number of arrivals seems to be getting lower, not higher, on an annual basis, who is actually getting his numbers wrong here? The prime minister who cries 'crisis' at the first sign of danger? Or the moderate sceptics who urge a more level-headed and less hysterical approach to this issue?

Jason Xuereb
@medsun. Is that so? So what, pray tell, is the point of the article? Was it an accademic excercise in Mathematics?
Jason Xuereb
@medsun. Is that so? So what, pray tell, is the point of the article? Was it an accademic excercise in Mathematics?
Interesting to note that those commenting seem to have totally ignored the point of the article!
I really see no point in this article other than an attempt by Mr. Vassallo to somehow prove that the Prime Minister is at fault. The article does nothing by way of suggesting how Malta can solve the immigration problem and seems to hint that the country should keep the immigrants even though they came here uninvited and are unwanted by the overwhelming majority of the Maltese. Do the majority of Maltese care what percentage of the total population the immigrants reprsent when they seem not to want any? Isn't it possible that the huge majority of Maltese are foreseeing social problems that will arise in Malta due to African immigrants and wish to protect their children from their effects in the future? Are the Maltese wrong to wish to protect their children from the effects of possible social disharmony even if, for the sake of the argument, these problems are for now only hypothetical?
This article tries unsuccessfully to hide another "number" from the equation. It completely ignores the fact that we are the most overpopulated country in the EU and thus we have very little space left when compared to other countries. For example, our Raphael forgets to tell us that for every square kilometer, we have almost 10 times more persons than Cyprus.
We are experiencing a crisis, who can doubt this, none the less they are welcome to rest for a short while.
Very false assumptions and comparisons. 2000 immigrants in 12 months but 2000 relocations in how many months? Like for like, they should be also in 12 same months. Otherwise the comparison is faulty. JM is right. Let's be fair and compare justly, not leaving loopholes!
A long essay to show dexterity in arithmatic. Why not wait and see the end result. Afterall is that not what really matters?
Jason Xuereb
Perhaps one should compare the number of illegal/irregular immigrants - if these numbers are actually known - to the rate of population growth of the Maltese people. Are these immigrants accounted for in the rise in population growth? Are they taken into account when measuring the number of unemployed in Malta? Are they, in fact, contributing anything - in finances and knowledge to Malta? Are there specialized persons among these immigrants and if so are their services being availed of? In his second paragraph Mr Vassallo tries to throw doubt as to whether 2000 arrivals actually form a crisis. If not, do we have to have a crisis to start taking action? Wouldn't that be crisis management? The last paragraph also merits an Oscar. Does Mr Vassallo advocate a policy similar to the PN's which was to do nothing at all and hope for the best?
It is about time that Malta Today starts taking more into consideration the feelings of the Maltese population. When was the last time that Malta Today carried out a survey on illegal immigration? Ages ago! As if this problem does not evolve and is static! Perhaps the Maltese do not count as opinion formers? It is a pity that the best newspaper in Malta seems to have become an enthusiastic cheerleader of the pro-immigration lobby. I know MT to have always been quite journalistically balanced. But now almost each writer is a member of a welcoming party to our islands. Perhaps this mentality could be used more fruitfully for tourism marketing improving the Maltese economy and employment. Let us leave emotion aside and concentrate on survival issues of Malta and the Maltese citizens! Let us practise some Maltese self-respect, please!