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Irregular immigration in the 21st century

In the 20th century, migration in Malta consisted primarily of emigration and limited return migration, especially after the physical and economic destruction inflicted on the island during World War II. Since this time, the island developed a successful tourist industry, which, along with the prevalent use of the English language, now results in a large number of tourists and language students arriving on the island for short stays.

Irregular immigration to the island has historically been minimal, with, for example, an annual average of approximately 100 such arrivals in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, in 2002 the island unexpectedly saw the arrival of 1,686 irregular migrants, an almost 30-fold increase from the 57 migrants who arrived without authorisation the previous year. The reasons for the dramatic increase in landings on the island at this time are not entirely clear, but this seems to have been at least in part due to stricter immigration controls in other areas of the Mediterranean - such as Italy’s Adriatic coast and between Spain and Morocco - which led to a diversion of migratory flows towards the Central Mediterranean region. As a consequence, Libya emerged as one of the most important transit countries for irregular migrants seeking to reach Europe from the African continent (Cuttitta 2006; Lutterbeck 2006).

En route between Libya and Europe are the Maltese islands which have continued to see such high levels of irregular immigration after the initial increase in 2002. The number of arrivals dropped to 500 in 2003, but then remained at between one and two thousand until 2008 when they peaked at 2,775. In 2008, Italy signed a Treaty of Friendship with Libya, which among other things allowed Italy to return migrants intercepted at sea to Libya without giving them access to asylum in Europe. This Treaty came into effect the following year and caused a significant decline in migrant arrivals in both Italy and Malta in 2009 and 2010. However, the onset of the political uprising in Libya in 2011 reversed this trend and arrivals surged again. Nevertheless, Italy’s policies and border control practices remain significant in influencing arrivals in Malta. For instance, although around 2,000 people arrived in 2012 and 2013, the Mare Nostrum operation caused arrivals to drop again in 2014,

The migrants and refugees comprising these flows are predominantly nationals from sub-Saharan countries, with Somalia and Eritrea being the main countries of origin. As such, the vast majority of migrants apply for asylum once they arrive on the island. Between 2004 and 2010, the top five nationalities of asylum applicants were Somali, Eritrean, Nigerian, Sudanese and Ivorian. These migrants and refugees travel through Africa to Libya, where many remain for months or years, working until the opportunity or necessity arises to travel across the Mediterranean. Before 2011, migrants travelled in groups of between 20 and 30 people on small, fibreglass boats. The majority were male adults. However, in 2011, the popular uprising in Libya caused many migrants, who were under attack from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces or rebel groups, to flee the country. The flows caused by the protracted conflict in Libya, of which Malta only received a fraction, were made up of more families, including women and children. The ones making the journey across the Mediterranean travelled in larger groups of hundreds of people on wooden fishing vessels (Mainwaring 2012).

The reasons given by migrants and refugees in Malta for leaving Libya throughout this decade were both economic opportunities and a desire for safety. Indeed, even before the political uprisings in Libya, migrants in the country were often the target of violence and racism. Moreover, the recent appearance of more Syrian and Palestinian refugees in these flows indicates the lack of other available legal channels into Europe. The vast majority, at least initially, intended to travel to Italy when they left Libyan shores, mainly because Italy offers easier access to the rest of the EU. However, the boats they travel on are often unseaworthy, which along with severe weather results in them needing to be rescued in Malta’s Search and Rescue (SAR) area before they reach their intended destination (authors’ interviews with migrants in Malta, 2010—2012).

Malta’s SAR region is an important factor in these migration patterns as it stretches across a large portion of the central Mediterranean. A relic of Britain’s colonial rule on the island, the SAR region comprises over 250,000 km2, approximately 800 times the size of Malta’s landmass of 316 km2. Effectively, the expansive SAR region means that any boat leaving Libya must pass through the area before reaching Italian shores. While Malta’s responsibility lies in rescuing migrants (and others) in distress in its SAR region, it may allow other migrant boats to pass through without intervening.

However, once a rescue has occurred, EU and international obligations stipulate that Malta is then responsible for the migrants’ disembarkation, as well as providing them access to the national asylum system. In contrast, prior to joining the EU in 2004, Malta’s informal policy was to help migrants in distress, but then allow them to continue on the Italy.

Malta also previously had no national asylum system. Until 2002, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Rome processed any asylum applications made on the island, as well as overseeing the resettlement of those successful in their claim. As part of the EU accession process, Malta enacted the Refugees Act and established its own system in 2001 under the auspices of a national Refugee Commissioner.

The new system was initially ill-equipped to manage unexpectedly high numbers of asylum applicants that increased steadily after 2002, causing long delays and large backlogs. More broadly, the government appeared unprepared for the sharp increase in the number of arrivals seen in 2002. The next section turns to the government’s response in the wake of these new irregular immigration flows. It starts with the response at the national level, before examining the relationship between Malta and EU and its influence on migration policies and practices.

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