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Malta’s policy response on land, at sea and within the EU

Malta’s response to the flows of irregular immigration, in terms of policies and politics, can be divided into three spaces: (1) domestically, on the island; (2) at sea, where national boundaries and responsibilities are often less clear; and (3) vis-a-vis the European Union, which has significant influence over the policies and politics adopted in Malta. The sections that follow consider each of these three spaces.

Controlling irregular immigration in Malta

On the island, Malta’s policy response is characterised by a focus on deterrence and control. Perhaps the most controversial policy that Malta continues to uphold is mandatory immigration detention. The policy allows for the detention of all migrants arriving without authorisation on the island. The first detention centre was opened in 2002 with a capacity to hold 80 people, revealing the government’s assumption that migration flows would continue to remain relatively small. This assumption was challenged the very same year when 1,686 migrants arrived on the island without authorisation.

Previously, no legal limit existed on the length of detention. Indeed, it was only due to pressure from local NGOs and the Council of Europe that Malta set a limit in 2005. Today, irregular migrants may be held in detention for up to 18 months. Asylum seekers are also detained, but are released once their claim has been processed if they are successful, or after 12 months if their claim is still under review. Unsuccessful asylum seekers and other migrants are routinely held for the entire 18 months.

The government has justified the detention policy by pointing to various factors. First and foremost, politicians highlight Malta’s small size. Although the number of arrivals is modest in absolute terms, the government has underlined the size of these flows relative to the small size of the island and its population, along with its high population density. The government argues that these factors amplify the effects of the arrivals, and place a ‘disproportionate burden’ on Malta as a member state on the EU’s southern periphery.

Alongside the narrative of a small island overwhelmed by migrant arrivals, the government has also pointed to security concerns and bipartisan political support when justifying the detention of migrants arriving without authorisation. These arguments similarly rest on an interpretation of the number of people arriving on the island as somehow ‘disproportionate’. Portraying the arrival of irregular migrants to the island as accidental reinforces the narrative that Malta cannot cope with the recent migration flows. Indeed, Malta does have one of the highest rates of irregular migrant arrivals per capita in Europe. Moreover, the Dublin III Regulation, discussed below, certainly places more responsibility for migration control on member states along the EU’s external border. Nevertheless, the focus in Malta on the number of migrants arriving per capita is politically convenient as it endorses a particular narrative. For example, if one considers the number of migrants arriving in relation to GDP per capita, Malta drops from having the second highest number of arrivals out of 44 industrialised countries to having the 24th highest between 2004 and 2009 (UNHCR 2009, 2010).

Moreover, considering that the number of arrivals in Malta dropped significantly in 2009 and 2010, and that the government nevertheless maintained the detention policy, it appears that the reasons for the detention policy lie elsewhere. Indeed, government officials have clearly stated that they believe the policy acts as a ‘powerful deterrent’ to potential migrants, despite the fact that International Law stipulates that states should avoid using detention as such, especially as this measure might deter asylum seekers within mixed migration flows (e.g. Council of Europe 2005; c.f. interviews carried out by author with government officials, Malta, 2007). Cetta Mainwaring has also argued that the policy reinforces and is symbolic of the interpretation of irregular immigration as a crisis on the island, a narrative that the government employs in order to gain further support from the European Union (Mainwaring 2012a).

Detention continues to be criticised by various actors and organisations on the island and across Europe. For example, Medecins Sans Frontieres published a scathing report detailing the conditions they found in detention, which caused them to suspend their work in the centres in 2009 (MSF 2009). More recently, in July 2012, the death of a 32-year-old Malian man at the hands of immigration detention staff spurred renewed criticism (Nielsen 2012; c.f. HRW 2012a; 2012b). Despite calls for its review, and the many alternatives to detention available (e.g. UNHCR 2006a), the government remains steadfast in its defence of the policy.

Detention not only undermines the physical and mental health of detainees, it is also detrimental to the integration process in Malta. Indeed, the government has thus far almost wholly disregarded the issue of integration of migrants, and practically no government policies exist in this area, while NGOs and international organisations provide the limited services they can. Within this context, it is unsurprising that there is little willingness among the Maltese population to integrate migrants from outside the EU, who are perceived as a burden rather than as a potential contribution to the country. Thus, according to a recent Eurobarometer survey, only 32 percent of Maltese think that immigration enriches the country economically or culturally, whereas 52 percent consider that immigrants do not contribute at all, making Malta the fifth least likely country among all EU countries to have a positive attitude towards immigration (Debono 2012). In general, the policy focus has remained squarely on deterrence and control in Malta and at sea.

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