Looking to Europe
As Malta’s recent push-back (or repatriation) attempt illustrates, much of its policies are set within the broader, regional framework of the European Union. Significantly, the Schengen Agreement calls for the relaxation of internal border controls, coupled with compensatory measures at the external borders. Moreover, the Dublin III Regulation stipulates that asylum seekers must apply for asylum in the first member state they reach. The Regulation and the Schengen Agreement place more responsibility for asylum and immigration control on member states along the EU’s external border, such as Malta.
A particular challenge for Malta has been the Dublin III Regulation, which provides for Malta’s responsibly to process asylum claims of all migrants landing on the island. While the initial rationale of this Regulation has been to prevent ‘asylum shopping’ within the EU, the Maltese government has considered it to be unfair as it ‘penalises’ countries such as Malta which happen to be located at the EU’s outer border. As a consequence, Malta together with other ‘frontline’ states, such as Cyprus and Greece, has been one of the main advocates of a revision of the Dublin III Regulation.
While amending this Regulation has thus far proven politically impossible, the Maltese government has insisted on greater solidarity and ‘burden sharing’ among EU countries when it comes to receiving asylum seekers. Malta made some headway in this area when a clause on ‘voluntary burden sharing’ was included in the European Pact on Immigration and Asylum, which was adopted by European leaders in 2008. While the Pact falls short of stipulating an obligation on EU countries to accept refugees from other member states and is itself not a legally binding document, it does encourage providing support to EU countries which are ‘faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on their national asylum systems, due in particular to their geographical or demographic situation’ in the form of ‘voluntary reallocation’ of refugees and other persons benefiting from international protection (EU Council 2008). Similar references have also subsequently appeared in other documents, such as the mandate for the European Asylum Support Office, established in Malta in 2010 (EU Council 2010b).
Within this regional context, Malta has an incentive to portray the arrival of irregular immigrants on the island as a crisis and the island as vulnerable to these flows in order to attain further support and funds. In recent years, other EU countries have indeed shown at least a modest degree of solidarity with Malta in resettling refugees who have landed on the island. In 2009, the so-called Eurema (European Relocation Malta) project was launched under which refugees and other persons benefitting from international protection could be reallocated from Malta to other EU countries. However, even though almost half of all EU member states have made pledges under the Eurema project, the number of resettled refugees has remained relatively small. Between 2009 and 2012, some 600 migrants were resettled from Malta to other EU countries within this framework. Somewhat ironically the USA has been more generous than Malta’s fellow EU member states, as it has taken a considerable number of refugees who have landed on the island, in particular from the Horn of Africa. Of a total of around 2,000 migrants who have thus far been resettled from Malta to other countries, around two thirds have been accepted by the USA.