Malta ready to take in its share of refugees

While the figure of the refugees to be taken by Malta remains unconfirmed, a leaked quota plan prepared by the European Commission suggests that Malta might take in 133 refugees.

As the European Union mulls a proposal to relocate 120,000 people on top of a group of 40,000 the European Commission originally proposed in May, Malta is prepared to take in its share of refugees under a proposed ‘distribution key’ mandated by the European Commission.

While the figure of the refugees to be taken by Malta remains unconfirmed, a leaked quota plan prepared by the European Commission suggests that Malta might take in 133 refugees.

Faced by a growing number of lives lost at sea, the European Commission had unveiled plans for the relocation of 40,000 refugees from Italy and Greece to other EU countries, as well as the resettlement of 20,000 from outside the EU, across the member states. 

On the eve of a ministerial council meeting in July, figures released by the United Nations refugee agency showed 137,000 people arriving to Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, 83% more than in the same time last year. 1,867 people died making the sea crossing, up from 588 a year earlier. 

Commission President Jean Claude Juncker had described the relocation of 40,000 refugees as “a very modest effort”. And yet, by end July, the EU countries had failed to meet the target, agreeing to take about 32,000 of the asylum seekers from Italy and Greece.

Whilst thousands of people fleeing wars and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Iraq, Pakistan, Eritrea and other troubled nations attempted to make the dangerous crossing on rickety boats, leaders of the European Union sat round a table disagreeing over sharing the influx of asylum seekers.

“When a few months ago, another European leader with a European heart and mind, Matteo Renzi, and myself literally pulled all stops to the indifference of the rest of Europe on the migrants tragedy, we saw a face of Europe which we found hard to digest,” Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat recounted. 

 “We saw blank faces and had to face political talk such as ‘we cannot go back telling our citizens that we are taking in migrants who are landing in other countries’. Some of these leaders who, after long hours of debate agreed to help countries like Italy and Greece, are now turning on us to assist them.”

Austria and Hungary are dealing with their own influx and the UK, who had opted out of the scheme, has now committed to resettle up to 20,000 from Syria over the next four and a half years. Britain will thus be taking in refugees from camps in the region and not those who have already made it to Europe.

Sharing refugees

Stepping up their game, France and Germany are to take on an extra 55,000 refugees over the next two years. “We’ve experienced a moving and breathtaking weekend and want to thank everyone who has helped. We can be proud,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said as the country welcomed 20,000 refugees over the weekend and prepared to welcome thousands more. 

“We know we were quick to save the banks. We have to be quick to meet this challenge too,” she said.

A spokesperson for the Maltese government told MaltaToday that the number of people who will be taken in by Malta has yet to be confirmed. While the Commission’s plan will be presented on Wednesday, the justice and home affairs ministers will meet on Monday. 

Syrians arriving in Malta this year numbered just 77, compared to the 129 received last year.

Asked whether Malta would be taking in more refugees than the proposed 133, a government spokesperson said that “this is something that we discuss with the EU according to the submissions”.

“We do not have a number and this isn’t a negotiation. We will take our share, even though in the past we faced huge numbers and the EU had failed to help us. Today we will help share the responsibility and lead by example,” the spokesman said.

Never easy

Following an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers last week, High Representative Federica Mogherini immediately pointed out that the meeting had not been an easy one.

But Mogherini’s first words were to urge member states to start using the right words: from illegal immigration to recognising that it is “partially a migrant flow, but it is mainly a refugee flow which puts us in a different situation when it comes to our legal and moral duties. In our eyes we have the pictures of the people marching from Budapest to Vienna, with European flags.”

She recognised that, whilst a few months ago it was an issue only Italy, or Malta, Spain or Greece were raising; “today, it’s mainly focused on, when you talk of Member States, Hungary, Greece, Austria and Germany”. 

“It could turn to other Member States in the future. And I hope – finally, finally – we all realise that these people are coming to Europe, not to one or another Member State. They are coming to Europe. Unfortunately, it took us some months to realise this, but maybe that awareness is finally there.”

Mogherini reiterated that fighting against smugglers’ and traffickers’ networks was an important part of the plan. She is now pushing for the EU to operate in high seas to fight them. 

The High Representative said it is of common interest to work on the root causes: one is Libya and the other is Syria.

“The European Union, its Member States – I would say the whole international community, but here we can only speak for ourselves – are ready to support in all possible ways, from day one, a new government of national unity in Libya, to manage all the difficult challenges it will have in front of itself.”

On Syria, Mogherini said the EU had to intensify its work to find a political solution to the conflict. 

Saving Syrians

The civil war in Syria has been going on since 2011, leading to some four million Syrian refugees fleeing to neighbouring Turkey (1.8 million), Lebanon (1.17 million), Jordan (629,000), Egypt and Iraq. According to UNHCR, 52% of Syrian refugees are less than 18 years old.

According to the refugee agency, around 53,000 Syrians arrived in Southern Europe by June 2015. 5,300 new asylum applications were registered from Syrians in Southern Europe, over three times more than the same period of 2014.

The majority of arrivals were in Greece, rising to 44,709 compared to the 6,363 last year.

During the first six months of this year, 784 individuals arrived to Malta, 94 by boat and 690 via regular means. 77 of those who came regularly were Syrians. 251 who applied for asylum in 2014 came via regular means.

According to UNHCR, 78 Syrians applied for asylum in Malta in 2015, some 10% of the total applications.

By June, there were 81 decisions on Syrians: two were granted refugee status, 74 received subsidiary protection, four cases were closed and one was rejected. Recognition rate of Syrian applicants in 2014 stood at 98.5%.

A deadly month

The International Organisation for Migration confirmed that September continues to be a deadly month in the Mediterranean. IOM’s Missing Migrants Project recorded 58 new fatalities at sea in just the first four days of the month. One was of an infant in Greek waters; two more deaths were reported in the Western Mediterranean near the Straits of Gibraltar, and the remainder between North Africa and Sicily, off the coast of Libya.

IOM pegs total deaths of migrants bound for Europe by sea today at 2,760, or over 500 more than were recorded on those same routes at this time in 2014.

Flavio di Giacomo of IOM Italy reported Sunday that 107 migrants were brought to Lampedusa on two Italian coastguard ships.

Witnesses explained the survivors were on a rubber dinghy on a rough sea. Of the 107 migrants rescued, almost all came from Sub-Saharan Africa, including 41 women from Nigeria.

Apparently the smuggler piloting the vessel was not experienced. Survivors said he made a wrong manoeuvre and a wave threw into the water those who were on the bow. Migrants told IOM staff that people on board begged to go back to rescue those floundering, but the smuggler refused.

On Monday the Italian navy reported that its salvage operations continued to recover bodies from a shipwreck that occurred on 18 April. Italian navy vessels have now recovered 118 bodies found in the fishing boat that foundered off the Libyan coast. The vessels “Turmoil” and “Termite” are said to be bringing 60 newly-recovered corpses to the port of Augusta this week.

On the Greek island of Lesvos, an unprecedented number of new arrivals have contributed to growing difficulties. According to IOM staff in the island, over 12,000 migrants reached the island between September 1 and 5. It is estimated that between 10,000 and 15,000 migrants on the island remain unregistered.

A new-born Syrian baby boy was found dead early on Saturday after his parents reached the steep shores of the Greek island of Agathonisi in a boat from Turkey. Due to the weather conditions, the boat crashed onto the rocks and overturned.  The survivors were transferred to Agathonisi island, while the infant’s family was moved to Samos for medical treatment.