NEWS | Sunday, 28 September 2008

Pact forces immigration onto political agenda

The Malta Labour Party this week broke an unwritten agreement not to politicise the sensitive immigration issue, when Joseph Muscat accused the Gonzi administration of caving into European pressure over the draft Migration Pact, signed by EU interior ministers on Thursday.
The controversial Migration Pact started out as an individual initiative of French president Nicholas Sarkozy, who assumed presidency of the European Union in July. According to the original draft text of the agreement, EU leaders would pledge to strengthen the fight against illegal migration and expel more illegal migrants, as well as confirm previous EU commitments such as a common asylum policy and biometric visas by 2010.
Among a plethora of other proposals, the pact calls on member states to “organise legal migration... combat irregular immigration... reinforce border control efficiency... create a Europe of asylum... (and) create a global partnership with countries of origin and transit.”
Effectively, the aim is to integrate existing immigration policies with a view to strengthening procedures at every link of the complex migration chain. The pact also proposes integration measures for legal migrants, paving the way for a common European policy on multiculturalism.
For these and other reasons – including the abject failure of Frontex missions this summer – critics have already suggested that this latest proposal will likewise fizzle out in a ocean of vacuous promises.
Here in Malta, where patience is thin on the ground after a record influx of asylum seekers, the question on most people’s minds is: what tangible effect will this agreement have on Malta’s own immigration problems?
At a glance, the answer seems to depend on how much voluntary co-operation Malta will be able to elicit from other EU member states, after steering into the agreement an oblique reference to the concept of “burden sharing”.
Malta’s contribution
The original draft agreement made no mention whatsoever of ‘responsibility sharing’ and it was only after prolonged negotiation that the government of Malta succeeded in embedding at least the concept of mutual co-operation into the final text.
“For those member states, which are faced with specific and disproportionate pressures on their national asylum systems, due in particular to their geographical or demographic situation, solidarity shall also aim to promote, on a voluntary and co-ordinated basis, better re-allocation of beneficiaries of international protection from such member states to others, while ensuring that asylum systems are not abused,” the pact now states.
More significantly, the text outlines a basic mechanism whereby this can be achieved: “In accordance with those principles, the Commission, in consultation with the UNHCR where appropriate, will facilitate such voluntary and coordinated re-allocation. Specific funding under existing EU financial instruments should be provided for this re-allocation, in accordance with budgetary procedures.”
Emerging from talks with European Commissioner Jacques Barrot on Friday, Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici hailed the above paragraph as a victory for Malta.
“We were already very positive that the French presidency was pushing forward this new migration pact and the fact that we have been successful in including in it the burden-sharing concept is a big step forward for Malta,” he said to journalists. “We have managed to convince everyone that Malta needs help to ease the impact of asylum seekers and illegal migrants on our country.”
But as tensions continue to escalate locally, it is unlikely that this admittedly vague measure will placate rising exasperation at what many view – rightly or wrongly – as a burgeoning crisis.
Local reactions
Given the potential electoral advantage, it was perhaps inevitable that the Malta Labour Party would dismiss the agreement as an outright sell-out.
In a harshly worded statement issued Friday, the MLP slammed Lawrence Gonzi for “surrendering” in the face of European interests.
Echoing sentiments already expressed by right wing organisation Azzjoni Nazzjonali, the MLP observed that the agreement provides for co-operation on a purely voluntary basis. “This does not oblige other EU member states to participate”, the party’s information office stated.
More cogently, the MLP remarked that the burden-sharing proposal applies only to legal migrants, despite the fact that Malta’s most pressing problem involves the many immigrants whose application for protection status has been rejected.
Although the MLP did not make the connection in as many words, the implication was that the government of Malta should have threatened to veto the agreement until a more specific commitment was included. This was a tactic employed to great effect by Labour PM Dom Mintoff in 1976, when Malta stalled a summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe for two weeks, insisting – and ultimately obtaining – a special reference to the Mediterranean region.
But while this aggressive position might win approval among Malta’s increasingly vocal anti-immigration lobby – as well as the older Labourites who still remember the Mintoff era with nostalgia – Joseph Muscat’s objections remain surprisingly unrealistic, for a politician of such European credentials.
For one thing, it was never likely that the 27 EU states would agree to a proposal obliging them to undertake what many view to be an excessive commitment, given that several of these countries have pressing immigration issues of their own. For another, unlike the OSCE conference, the Migration Pact is not in itself essential for the furtherance of the European project. From this perspective, Malta’s veto would only have antagonised a number of potential allies, while not actually achieving its declared aims.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the government’s modest victory this week has been warmly received by humanitarian agencies on the front line.
Fr Paul Pace of the Jesuit Refugee Service welcomed the agreement: “JRS supports Malta’s claim for greater effective solidarity among EU member states in dealing with the immigration issue: we consider the Dublin arrangement as basically unfair, both to the EU border states like Malta, and to the asylum seekers themselves,” he told MaltaToday. “We hope that the decision will translate into a situation where those with a right for protection will be in a better position to enjoy it effectively. We also hope that this new opening will give Maltese society as a whole the space to rethink our present immigration policy which still puts hundreds of people in detention in conditions that are unacceptable for a democratic country.”
The agreement is expected to be formalised by the EU Council of Ministers next month.

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