News | Sunday, 25 October 2009

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Global recession, or deal with Libya?

This year’s lull in immigration has been attributed to the global economic downturn. But could this be a pretext to absolve Italy of human rights violations? Analysis by RAPHAEL VASSALLO

By all accounts, 2009 was a lean year for irregular immigration. As of September, the total number of recorded immigrant landings in Malta stood at 1,459 – over 1,000 fewer than had landed over the corresponding period in 2008 (which by way of contrast ended on a record high of 2,775 arrivals in total).
Could it be a coincidence that this sharp decline in arrivals occurred at a time of global economic crisis? Frontex – the European Union’s border control agency, set up specifically to pool member states’ resources to control immigration – seems to think otherwise.
In a report issued in August, the agency identifies a “clear link” between this year’s apparent drop in irregular immigration across the Mediterranean, and the lack of job availability caused by the international recession.
“Illegal migration to Member States is analysed as mainly income-generating migration, regardless of the initial causes or push factors,” the report states. “Other factors like the situation in the countries of origin seem to play, though important, a less significant role in determining the scale of illegal migration to the EU.”
The same report also claims that immigration patterns can be predetermined by economic conditions in Europe at any given time.
“Notwithstanding the complexity of the issue, the correlation could signal that illegal immigration influx behaves mainly as a function of labour demand in destination countries and is largely predictable.”
However, not everyone is convinced by this argument, with some observers hinting that the dip in incoming migrants is more likely to have been caused by a controversial deal struck last June between Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi and Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi.
Ostensibly, the agreement was part of a wider financial settlement which bound the Italian government to invest €25 billion in various Libya-based projects over the next 15 years. In the small print, however, was a clause whereby all irregular migrants departing from Libya (i.e., practically 100% of all immigrants passing through the central Mediterranean), and intercepted by the Italian Guardia Costiera, could be returned directly to Libya without assessing the migrants’ eligibility for asylum.
Italy has been slammed by human rights’ organisations such as UNHCR, and also by the Vatican, for violating the human rights charter. But the initiative has been praised locally, with an increasingly vocal anti-immigration lobby urging the Maltese government to follow suit.
However, the same arrangement can also be demonstrated to have directly harmed Malta’s interests. AFM sources informally told this newspaper that the dynamics of irregular immigration have significantly altered since June, as people traffickers change their methods to avoid detection by the newly launched Libyan/Italian joint patrols.
“There are two major effects we are noticing,” an AFM member told MaltaToday. “One, because of an increase in Libyan security patrolling the more commonly used routes, departures are no longer being effected from the traditional ports of Zawra and Zawia. Instead, the immigrants now appear to be putting to sea from closer to Benghazi.”
This in turn suggests that people traffickers are steering clear of the central Mediterranean route and striking a course further east, partly on the basis that they are more likely to be rescued by Maltese patrols than Italian.
The second change concerns the type of craft used in the crossings.
“Up until last year, it was standard for immigrants to be intercepted in groups of between 28 and 32, aboard fibre-glass boats. Now, we are finding much larger and less seaworthy rubber dinghies, packed with anywhere between 75 and 105 persons.”
Ironically, then, while the global number of asylum seekers has dropped since last year, the average number of boatloads per landing is much higher than previously witnessed.
Another, less visible effect appears to be that people traffickers now directly market Malta as an attractive destination to asylum seekers – on the basis that asylum in Malta could conceivably lead to resettlement in other EU member states as a result of burden sharing, or (even more desirable from the migrants’ perspective) in the USA thanks to a resettlement programme commenced by Ambassador Molly Bordonaro.
Another aspect of the Frontex report that raised eyebrows is its exhaustive reliance on a study undertaken by the University of California into US illegal immigration into from Mexico.
The trouble with this approach is that, with very few exceptions, illegal immigration across the Mexican border is nearly always economic in nature. A strict comparison with the sort of immigration that Malta has witnessed in the past decade – characterised by a large incidence of asylum seekers from well-known war zones such as Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan – is therefore not entirely feasible.
However, on at least one level, the findings of the Frontex report do seem to tally with the Malta immigration experience. Despite the relatively low numbers of immigrants compared to last year, Malta in 2009 experienced a larger than usual influx of asylum seekers from Eritrea and especially Somalia. This indirectly supports the view that immigration is somehow linked to job availability in Europe; if nothing else, because a far lower number of evidently economic migrants was recorded in 2009.

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