NEWS | Sunday, 30 December 2007

All aboard Bus No. 13

If the events of the passing year are anything to go by, immigration is likely to become a going political concern in 2008. But Raphael Vassallo also predicts a few improvements ahead

It turned out to be a trivial comment in the end, but Labour MP Joe Sammut’s suggestion of a separate bus route for immigrants served to awaken slumbering concerns about Maltese xenophobia.
Echoing Nationalist embarrassment at Franco Galea’s similar outburst in 2005, the Labour Party was quick to distance itself from the gaffe by arguing that Sammut was merely voicing the concerns of his Birzebbuga constituents. But this, some retorted, is precisely the point. People living in areas now heavily populated by foreign asylum seekers are worried, rightly or wrongly, about a gradual takeover of their hometowns. And nothing is apparently being done at government level to address this concern.
Even as the exhaust fumes of Bus No.13 faded into the distance, the issue was suddenly re-ignited by a much-publicised and widely circulated email, suggesting that a policeman had warned people to avoid Birzebbuga after dark as “these places do not belong to us anymore.”
Although eventually disproved, the allegation nonetheless cemented a growing popular perception that large swathes of Malta are somehow off-limits to the Maltese. Again, this is not strictly speaking borne out by the facts; but it is certainly true that our national integration policy, currently distributed among different ministries which do not always see eye to eye, has had the consequence of ghettoising large numbers of asylum seekers; and ghettoisation is always an intimidating affair to a population evidently unused to the presence of ethnic minorities.
Coupled with the emergence of a self-avowed “anti-immigration” party in 2007, it may be a matter of time before the larger parties also succumb to xenophobia as an electoral tactic, as has after all happened in all parts of Europe.

Improved conditions
But not all the year’s news has been bad. Admittedly, conditions in places like the Hal Far tent city remain utterly abysmal, even as the weather worsens in what looks to be the harshest winter in recent memory. But some of the open centres have benefited from renewed government investment and a long-overdue lick of paint.
More significantly, the Refugee Commission has recently been strengthened: an important development, considering that many of the more serious problems associated with immigration arise precisely because of the duration of asylum application processing.
And on the subject of asylum, recent statistics suggest a drop in the number of asylum seekers to be granted either refugee of temporary humanitarian protection (THP) status: from just over 45 per cent in 2005 – the highest in Europe at the time - to only three out of 10 this year.
The figures are open to interpretation, but they suggest a general tightening of the eligibility criteria, especially for THP. It is also possible to argue that they simply reflect an increase in entry of non-eligible immigrants as opposed to genuine refugees. This in turn could be due of a number of factors, including a honing of the operational systems used by international human traffickers. It could also indicate that because of improvements in the political situations in countries like Somalia – where an interim government is now entering its third year after a decade of civil war and anarchy – an entire category of asylum seekers is no longer considered eligible.
Either way, the net result is ironically greater inconvenience for the State, as many of the failed asylum seekers prove difficult or impossible to deport – not least because of the enormity of the expense involved – and are now stuck here in a veritable legal no man’s land. Hence tent city, and all the problems associated therewith.

Europe’s Shame, Malta’s gain?
The European border control agency Frontex also made a comeback in 2007, after a shaky start which had seen a number of European nations defaulting on their promises to provide assets for joint operations. The agency has now been allotted considerably greater funding for 2008, and while Malta’s repeated pleas for “burden sharing” have not so far been heeded, the commitment to a greater Frontex presence in future suggests that the European Union may finally be realising that irregular immigration is not a issue which can be ignored indefinitely.
Paradoxically, this may have come at enormous expense to Malta’s international reputation: for among the factors to have prompted this renewed European interest was the shocking front-page picture in the Independent (UK), captioned “Europe’s Shame”, and showing a number of asylum seekers desperately clinging to the netting of a Maltese-owned tuna pen, after the tug boat captain refused to allow them on board.

The Schengen effect
In late 2007 Malta also joined the Schengen area, with far-reaching implications for an ever-changing immigration scenario.
Schengen’s impact on immigration patterns is hard to predict, but it might help assuage some of the fears contributing to Malta’s growing xenophobia factor – including the oft-cited concern that war criminals and would-be terrorists may be infiltrating the country under the guise of asylum seekers.
Article 7 of the Schengen Borders Code stipulates that third-country nationals entering an EU state must be subject to thorough checks. Among these is a process of screening against the Schengen Information System: a database containing information about fugitives or wanted criminals, stolen passports, and other items of interest to national security.
This might not eliminate whatever chance may exist that potentially dangerous persons are indeed entering the country illegally; but it will certainly make it easier to identify such persons should they arrive.
But there is also a snag: it could also worsen the plight of asylum seekers, and possibly even increase an already unacceptably high death toll.

Desperate measures
This year’s experience has revealed changing trends in irregular immigration. Testifying before the British House of Lords earlier this year, AFM squadron leader Major Andrew Mallia explained the differences the between the central and western Mediterranean routes.
It seems that Lampedusa, an island with a large mainland (Italy) to fall back on, is known to people traffickers as a destination which can handle large simultaneous arrivals. For this reason, it tends to attract sizeable fishing vessels with up to 200 passengers on board. Malta, on the other hand, seems to have been identified as a target for smaller, less conspicuous boats carrying an average of 27 passengers each.
On one hand, this may have helped to keep the phenomenon within manageable proportions, but there has been a terrible price to pay in terms of loss of life. Small, rickety boats are less likely to withstand adverse conditions than large fishing vessels. This has led to a relatively much higher number of fatal incidents on the Maltese route than any other in the Mediterranean.
With the advent of Schengen and the re-invigoration of Frontex, there is a chance that future boatloads may become smaller still to avoid detection under the new and stricter border control regime. This will increase the danger of an already perilous crossing, while also adding to the headaches of Malta’s overstretched search and rescue squadron.
Whatever happens, it will definitely not be a Happy New Year for all those who attempt the desperate scramble for Europe in 2008.


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All aboard Bus No. 13

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