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The EU’s ‘Soft Underbelly’? Malta and Irregular Immigration

Derek Lutterbeck and Cetta Mainwaring

Abstract: The rise, since 2002, of irregular migrants arriving on Malta has become a serious challenge for Maltese society and a top policy priority. The chapter traces the evolution of migratory flows from Libya to Malta, analysing the relationship between the deterrence policies of successive Maltese governments in the context of Malta’s status as a gatekeeper for the European Union. The chapter concludes that Malta has, to date, received little support for its handling of the migratory influx from fellow member states or the EU as an institution. It is in this light, that the plight of irregular migrants on Malta, accommodated in temporary camps with limited opportunities for work or education, and little prospect of leaving the island, should be seen.

Massey, Simon and Rino Coluccello. Eurafrican Migration: Legal, Economic and Social Responses to Irregular Migration. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan,

2015. doi: 10.1057/9781137391353.0006.


The Maltese archipelago is located in the central Mediterranean, at a crossroads between east and west and north and south. Historically, its geostrategic position has enticed many foreign conquerors who used the island as a base for trade and further military conquests. Malta also lies on Europe’s southernmost periphery, an area that has been referred to as Europe’s ‘soft underbelly’ - originally within the context of World War II, but subsequently as part of the EU’s discourse on irregular migration (Haynes 1999: 19; Katrougalos and Lazaridis 2003: 169). More recently, Malta has been characterised by its own government and others in Europe as vulnerable to the increase in irregular immigration flows seen on the island since 2002. However, these new flows have given Malta some political clout within the European Union as it has portrayed itself as key to securing the EU’s southern border against irregular immigration.

This chapter looks at this small island state’s response to new flows of irregular immigration in the 21st century. It contextualises the response within the political dynamics and regional policies of the European Union, which place a high level of responsibility on Malta, at least discursively, to act as a migration gatekeeper for the Union. The regional context has greatly influenced Malta’s response to the irregular immigration flows over the last decade, a response also informed by Malta’s position as a small member state with limited political clout on the EU’s periphery.

In order to bring to light the migration control dynamics on the southern edge of Europe, Malta’s migration patterns and policy responses over the past decade are reviewed. First, the chapter turns to the migration history of the island in the 21st century, including the flows seen in Malta in 2011 as a result of the popular uprisings in North Africa. The second section considers Malta’s policy response to these irregular immigration flows, focusing on national policies and their implications, the situation at sea, and the island’s relationship with the European Union. The third section examines Malta’s immigration policies and practices from the perspective of migrants and refugees on the island. Finally, we conclude with some thoughts as to the future of migration and migration controls in Malta.

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