What has been the impact of Malta’s policies, as described above, on the migrants who have landed on the island? And how have immigrants and asylum seekers in Malta perceived these policies? The first point to note here is that, for most migrants landing on the island, the journey from sub-Saharan Africa to Libya and from there to Europe has been a traumatic experience. During the trip from their country of origin to Malta, migrants are often confronted with extreme hardship, ranging from hunger and thirst to severe physical abuse at the hands of both state officials and migrant smugglers. Migrants usually identify travelling across the Sahara and crossing the Mediterranean by boat as the most difficult parts of their journey, where many of them say they came close to perishing (Lutterbeck 2012).
There are at least three aspects of Malta’s immigration control policies, which can be said to further exacerbate the plight of irregular migrants en route to Malta: the country’s maritime patrol efforts, its migrant detention policy, and the general lack of migrant integration policies in Malta.
Accounts of migrants who have travelled by boat from Libya to Malta often highlight the slowness of Maltese authorities’ rescue efforts and response to migrants’ distress calls. Some migrants interviewed by the authors claimed that they drifted for many days - sometimes more than a week - at sea without food or water, before they were rescued, even though they seemed to have been spotted by patrol boats in the area or had sent distress signals. Moreover, migrants have argued that Maltese maritime officials tend to focus more on dissuading immigrants from coming to the island rather than on rescuing them. Similarly, many migrants in Malta have pointed to the unwillingness of fishermen to come to their rescue, and there have even been cases where fishermen have forcefully tried to prevent migrants from boarding their boat, despite the fact that the migrants’ vessel was sinking (authors’ interviews with migrants in Malta, 2011).
Even though there is no evidence of cases where Maltese officials outright refused or failed to rescue migrants when they had clear information about a boat in distress, there have been instances where Maltese authorities let an unseaworthy boat carrying migrants pass through its SAR area, which then encountered severe problems. In 2009, for example, a boat carrying five Eritreans arrived at Lampedusa after travelling through Malta’s SAR region. The migrants claimed that there were, originally, more than 70 people on the boat, and that all but the remaining five had drowned. Indeed, Maltese officials themselves admit that their interpretation of a ‘situation of distress’ is narrower than that used by other countries, and that, therefore, the Armed Forces of Malta are generally reluctant to carry out rescue operations (author’s interviews with AFM officials, Malta, 2011).
Once on the island, Malta’s indiscriminate detention policy is particularly detrimental to migrants on the island. For most immigrants in Malta it is difficult to comprehend how a European country, which upholds human rights and the rule of law, can put migrants in prison even though they have committed no crime. Immigrants in Malta often highlight that they fled from countries where their basic rights were abused only to find themselves in a country where their human rights are also violated in the form of arbitrary detention. Moreover, even though the conditions in Malta’s detention centres have improved in recent years, migrants in Malta continue to condemn shortcomings in this area, such as the insufficiency of basic health care provision in detention, the substandard quality of food, and the almost complete absence of opportunities for migrants to engage in meaningful activities while in detention (authors’ interview with migrants in Malta, 2011).
Finally, and at least partly as a result of the absence of migrant integration policies in Malta, the large majority of migrants feel they have practically no prospects of starting a meaningful life in Malta. Similarly, the possibilities of finding adequate employment in Malta are very scarce. As has been pointed out by a recent study on the situation of migrants in the Maltese labour market, immigrants generally have access to only a very limited number of jobs. Moreover, these tend to be jobs, which ‘offer the lowest wages, which are the most difficult from a physical point of view, and which have a negative image attached to them (for example collecting refuse)’ (Suban 2012).
Given their limited prospects in Malta, many migrants intend to leave the island in one way or another. While some hope to be included in a resettlement programme to another EU country or the USA, for which the waiting lists are usually many years long, it is very common for migrants in Malta to try their luck in other EU countries, despite the fact that this is prohibited under the aforementioned Dublin Regulation (author interviews with migrants in Malta, 2011). It is not known how many migrants who originally landed on Malta are living in other EU countries without authorisation, but the numbers are probably significant. One indication is the number of migrants returned to Malta from other EU countries. While official figures are difficult to ascertain, those published show an increase over the four years between 2006 and 2009: 59 in 2006, 37 in 2007, 131 in 2008, and 470 in 2009 (data provided to the author by the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs, 2010; c.f. Eurostat). Although the number returned is low in absolute terms, the spectre of return remains a powerful reality in the lives of migrants and refugees in Malta, who report their frustration in being returned to a country that they feel does not want them.