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Malta: The mediterranean purgatory that casts migrants back to the baying shores from whence they came

Migration has become a hot topic in the EU over the last decade, peaking in 2015 with over a million people making dangerous journeys into Europe, fuelled by wars on other continents pushing people to seek refuge. The bloc has been devoid of answers as to how to deal with migrant crossings humanely and effectively and with a new refugee crisis sparked by the war in Ukraine emerging this issue threatens to rear its head again. Despite flashpoints that gain brief media attention this issue is in fact a constant underlying issue for the EU, writes Louis Auge.

Some nations are inevitably under more pressure than others with countries in the Mediterranean constantly battling to secure their borders. Unfortunately, in recent years Malta has found itself at the centre of a controversy over its handling of the crisis. A 2019 Maltese agreement with Libya to work together to curb migrant crossings triggered widespread accusations of human rights abuses. Recent parliamentary questions from opposition party MP Therese Comodini Cachia, aimed to understand how many migrants have been returned to Libya, have gone noticeably unanswered by the government.

At ground level Malta provides the Libyan coastguard with training and equipment to help intercept migrant boats. Many of the 80,000 people intercepted by the Libyan coastguard over the past five years have been subjected to horrific torture and abuse in the 27 prisons and detention facilities across Libya. The Maltese government is well versed in turning a blind eye to the human rights violations, completely apathetic to the plight of these people, many of whom are fleeing countries ripped apart by war.

Malta’s mistreatment of migrants also extends to those that slip through its net and make it to their shores. In 2019, three young asylum seekers were jailed in Malta upon arrival. The young men had convinced the captain of the merchant ship conducting the rescue mission not to return them and their 100 fellow refugees to Libya and instead bring them to Malta. The three teenagers, two of whom were minors when the incident took place, are now facing up to 30 years in prison on trumped-up charges of terrorism.

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The ElHiblu3, as they have come to be known, have garnered much media attention; Amnesty International are among various human rights groups who have called for the charges to be dropped. The United Nations issued a statement urging Malta to reconsider the charges against the three teenagers, decrying the torturous fate that awaits migrants upon their return to Libya.

Despite Malta’s hardline approach being continuously condemned over the past few years, the inhumane treatment of refugees continues on the island nation famed for its idyllic landscapes and tourist traps. This is yet another example of Malta’s failure to adhere to fundamental EU standards, this time made all the more staggering due to the election of the first Maltese European Parliament President, Roberta Metsola. Metsola has a long held desire for EU leaders to take responsibility over the migrant crisis having signalled similar sentiment in 2015, and waded in on the migrant issue recently, saying that the EU “will seek precisely to ensure the streamlining of the way migrants are treated”.

Conversely, Metsola’s sympathies are a stark departure from the ruling elite of her own country. In 2020, Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela was accused of homicide by an NGO over the deaths of five migrants. He was later cleared of the charges after a legal case was brought. Abela was notable by his absence during Metsola’s recent visit to her home nation, where she instead met President George Vela. Abela and Metsola are thought to have a frosty relationship to say the least, with Metsola previously hitting back at Abela’s allies who attacked her with accusations of being a traitor to her country.

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With the upcoming Maltese election set for March, the island nation is at a crossroads. Abela’s regime has failed to adhere to European moral and ethical standards; if Malta is to continue down this road then a change in tack on big political issues seems unlikely. With a very small population of less than 600,000, Malta does not have the resources or personnel of most nations. Regardless, they have failed to successfully ask for assistance from EU neighbours and have as a result become an outcast for their handling of the migrant crisis. It is a depressing reality with so many lives at stake, and Metsola can only do so much from afar.

Malta’s dispassionate and arguably criminal behaviour that violates human rights accords is unbefitting of a supposedly civilised nation, and especially one that claims to espouse European values. Visiting migrants and raising awareness of the adversity they face is set to be a focus of Pope Francis’ visit to the island in March. For a country that is pro-life when it comes to abortion, the value of life seems to be secondary to its own interests when dealing with migrants.

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