Malta–An Island Engulfed By Immigrants

An Island Engulfed by Migrants
Tiny Malta Struggles to Absorb Boatloads of Desperate Africans

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 4, 2006; Page A14

VALLETTA, Malta — Elegant white cruise ships slide into a perfect Mediterranean harbor, dropping hundreds of sun-blushed tourists to wander this former British colony's narrow alleyways dotted with pubs and classic red English telephone booths. But just beyond these postcard-perfect scenes, an unwanted flotilla of rickety fishing boats carrying desperate Africans is arriving, too.

“See, there's one of them now,” said Jesmond Saliba, pointing to an African man in jeans and sandals ambling along streets alive with white tourists.

VIDEO | The European Union's smallest member nation faces a growing crisis over illegal immigration as a surge of African migrants, most of them from nearby Libya, land on this country's Mediterranean shores.

Saliba, 34, drives a horse-drawn taxi, as his father did. For generations in his family, more visitors meant more money. But Saliba feels differently about the thousands of destitute Africans arriving here needing food, housing and medicine. “We don't have enough jobs for them, and it means more taxes for us,” Saliba said. “This island is too small for them.”

Malta suddenly finds itself on the leading edge of an increasingly emotional debate over how much immigration Europe can tolerate. About twice the size of the District of Columbia, it sits like a tiny sentry off southern Europe, 60 miles south of Sicily, looking across the sea at 2,000 miles of North African coast. In the past four years, more than 5,000 African immigrants have come ashore here, most often making the 200-mile crossing from Libya in open fishing boats.

Nearly all were aiming for Italy and mainland Europe. But when their skiffs foundered or ran out of gas, they found themselves in a nation of just 400,000 people, more densely populated than Bangladesh, where families have known each other for generations and people from the next village are considered outsiders.

“There is a feeling of 'My God, we are being invaded!' ” said Katrine Camilleri, a lawyer with the Jesuit Refugee Service, which aids the boat people. “It's becoming more and more acceptable for people to openly say, 'We don't want them.' ”

The same holds on the continent. Hard-line anti-immigration political parties have made dramatic electoral gains in Denmark, Norway and Britain. Mainstream political parties are tilting more and more in that direction.

Countries that until recently had barely any foreigners, such as Ireland, are now taking in large numbers of newcomers of different races and religions. Last month, 40 Afghans staged a hunger strike inside a Dublin cathedral to press their demand for political asylum.

More than 9,000 Africans, meanwhile, have reached Spain's Canary Islands by boat this year, turning that tourist destination into another immigration crisis point. The European Union's border patrol agency said last week that it was planning to send air and sea patrols to the Canary Islands, Malta and other hot spots.

“The whole of Europe is putting up the shutters,” said Martin Scicluna, an adviser to Malta's justice minister. Maltese officials are pleading with other European nations to take custody of some of the boat people who arrive here. So far, the Netherlands has taken 40; Germany has pledged to take a similar number.

Many in Malta, an overwhelmingly white, Catholic nation, are angry about the growing numbers of black, mostly Muslim newcomers.

“We don't want a multicultural society,” said Martin Degiorgio, a leader of the Republican National Alliance, an anti-immigrant group formed last year. “Haven't you seen the problems it has brought to France and Britain?”

“We have never had minorities, and we don't want minorities,” he said. “Until just three or four years ago, it was almost impossible to find a black African walking in Maltese streets, but nowadays you just have to walk in our capital city and there are many of them.”

Many of the migrants gather near the old stone city gate near the once-grand opera house that was bombed, like so much of the island, in World War II. A British territory until 1964, Malta was a closer target than London for the Nazi Luftwaffe, and many residents interviewed said the relentless boatloads of foreigners made islanders feel as if they were under assault again.

VIDEO | The European Union's smallest member nation faces a growing crisis over illegal immigration as a surge of African migrants, most of them from nearby Libya, land on this country's Mediterranean shores.

“We need to get extra patrol boats and send them back,” said Charlie Bezzina, 47, who was selling local Cisk beer near the opera house steps.

Ruth Spiteri, a mother of three sitting with her children in a perfectly groomed park a few blocks away, said the migrants demanded too much. “They don't like the food we give them. They are aggressive with soldiers. They bring different diseases,” she said.

Some Maltese fault the government and a conservative church hierarchy for failing to explain the boat people's plight and to calm unjustified fears. In that vacuum, they say, racist and xenophobic views have flourished. Recently, a Congolese man said a motorist deliberately rammed him, throwing him against a wall and injuring both his legs.

The Rev. Paul Pace, acting director of Jesuit Refugee Service, said his group has been going into high schools asking students to imagine leaving their homes, without taking anything with them, and risking their lives to move to a new country. He said Malta must show the human face of these migrants, who have much to contribute. Pace said he was certain that his group's advocacy for immigrants was the reason arsonists recently torched seven cars belonging to Jesuits and the house and car of Camilleri, the group's assistant director.

Terry Gosden, who runs one of the country's detention centers for migrants, said physicians, lawyers and people with master's degrees were among the people he was sheltering. Some have found jobs in the community, working at building sites, as hotel chambermaids, as laborers in shipyards or as garbage collectors.

Many died at sea trying to get here, he said. “The Mediterranean is a graveyard.”

Like many here, Gosden said he felt the answer to the current problem lay in investment in Africa, which is needed to create jobs there: “Turning Europe into a fortress won't work.”

Malta, which joined the European Union in 2004, is bound by E.U. rules stating that the country where illegal immigrants first land must take responsibility for them, deciding who can stay on humanitarian grounds and who should be sent home. In practical terms, it has proved difficult for Malta to return people because of the cost and diplomatic complications.

Currently, nearly 1,000 immigrants sit in crowded facilities known as “closed detention centers.” Human rights advocates call living conditions there unacceptable. People who are taken from boats must spend 18 months in these locked facilities — off-limits to the news media — then may be granted humanitarian status to stay on and move to an “open detention center.”

“You can't imagine how difficult I find it here,” said Ihaps Norain, 28, a sad-looking Sudanese man standing one recent day near the bus terminal at the entrance to this city of sand-colored buildings built by the famed Knights of St. John in the 16th century.

Norain explained how his Libyan boat ran out of gas, forcing him to land here instead of Italy. Having served his time in the locked detention center, he is now free to come and go. In Sudan, he said, he was studying accounting; here, he builds windows in an aluminum factory. He cannot wait to leave but doesn't know how. “I don't want to be here,” he said, “and I know people here don't want me.”

Other dejected boat people have taken to calling Malta “midway to nowhere.”

Norain hopped on a bus for a five-minute journey to bring a visitor to the open center where he lives with 560 other people, mostly Africans but a few from Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and other countries. Norain sleeps on a mattress in a corner.

“I ask myself, 'Why did I risk my life for this?' ” Norain said. “I see the way they look at me on the bus. Some people make you feel so sad.”

Human rights groups estimate that more than a million sub-Saharan Africans displaced by war and poverty have gathered in Libya, hoping to make a journey similar to Norain's.

Scicluna, the government adviser, said that it was “utterly unrealistic to think you can pull up the drawbridge” and that the country needed time to adjust to immigration.

“We've got to live with it. We've got to adapt to it. We have got to make it work,” he said.