Malta’s asylum claims fall to pre-EU levels as Italy takes all refugees rescued at sea

Libyans top the number of asylum claimants who were given international protection, as Italy continues policy to take rescued asylum seekers and United States resettles refugees living in Malta

Malta’s refugee arrivals have dwindled to an all-time low, as Italy retains its role in the Mediterranean as one of the EU member states taking large numbers of asylum seekers and refugees rescued at sea.

While pressure builds up on the European Union’s eastern flank as hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees cross in from Turkey, the number of boat people arrivals to Malta has returned to pre-EU accession levels.

In 2003, the year Malta voted to join the EU, there were 520 arrivals of asylum seekers – mainly from sub-Saharan Africa.

But in 2014 – a year since Italy’s Mare Nostrum rescue mission was downsized and replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton – Malta had just 568 arrivals.

At their height in 2008, Malta took in 2,775 arrivals, mainly sub-Saharan asylum seekers; by 2010, the Berlusconi regime in Italy was enforcing a ruthless pushback of boat arrivals – Malta only had 10 arrivals that year.

And real-time data supplied by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) also shows that fewer and fewer asylum seekers and refugees are being hosted in Malta’s open centres: in 2010, there were 2,220 people living in camps in Hal Far and Marsa; that number has fallen year by year, with just 740 living in open centres as at August 2015.

One of the key factors in driving down the population of sub-Saharan migrants in Malta has been the United States’ resettlement scheme, which since 2007 has resettled 2,442 people.

This factor perhaps accounts for the fact that while Italian naval forces have been taking rescued asylum seekers to Lampedusa and Sicily, Malta’s asylum applications are now mainly being filed by Libyans and Ukrainians.

Between January and August 2015, the office of the Commissioner for Refugees handled 865 applications requesting asylum.

Of these applications, the majority – 65% – were from Libyan nationals (534), ostensibly flying in to Malta; the next main category were Syrians (104), and the third highest number of applicants – also flying in to Malta and entering legally – were Ukrainians, 40.

In fact, 590 Libyans were granted some form of international protection in 2015.

EU’s refugee crisis

As war in Syria continues unabated, Europe faces one its biggest refugee influxes in decades.

UNHCR data puts the number of people who risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea at 300,000 so far in 2015 alone.

“Over 2,600 didn’t survive the dangerous crossing, including three-year-old Aylan, whose photo has just stirred the hearts of the world public. After arriving on Europe’s shores and borders, they continue their journey – facing chaos and suffering indignity, exploitation and danger at borders and along the way,” the UNHCR said.

The agency said the vast majority of those arriving in Greece come from conflict zones like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan and are “simply running for their lives”.

But Europe’s piecemeal response has seen countries like Hungary expelling refugees pouring into its borders, while countries like Germany have mobilised to welcome refugees, with Chancellor Angela Merkel going down in the streets to meet arrivals. 

Earlier this week, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs in his State of the Union address that migration required ‘more Europe’ to have all member states respond to the crisis in full solidarity.

Hungary and other member states in the so called Visengrad group are still refusing to take in a mandatory quota of refugees under a distribution key created to resettle some 120,000 among 28 member states.

Malta has one of the smallest quotas at 133.

But the UNHCR says a very preliminary estimate would indicate a potential need to increase relocation opportunities to as many as 200,000 places. “This can only work if it goes hand in hand with adequate reception capacities, especially in Greece. Solidarity cannot be the responsibility of only a few EU member states.”