Malta’s History of Failed Migration Deterrence

Malta’s need to stand up to Italy is preventing it from leading on better E.U. migration policy. Cetta Mainwaring argues for a radical departure from past and present failures.

Written by Cetta Mainwaring Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Migrants are helped off the MV Lifeline as it arrives in the harbor of Valletta, Malta, on June 27, 2018. The boat was stranded for nearly a week in the Mediterranean after rescuing 234 migrants off Libya's coast. MATTHEW MIRABELLI/AFP/Getty Images

Since June, Malta has closed its ports to charity boats carrying out search and rescue missions in the Central Mediterranean. It has impounded the MV Lifeline and charged its captain with multiple offenses. Subsequently, the smallest E.U. member state refused to allow the Sea Watch III to set sail from its harbor on a planned rescue mission and grounded its spotter plane. Malta’s policy of containment is not new but the target has shifted.

Malta and the wider E.U. are containing and criminalizing organizations who carried out 40 percent of rescues in the Central Mediterranean in 2017 and up until May 2018, organizations whose aim is to demonstrate the E.U.’s complicity in deaths at sea. Simultaneously, the E.U. has established a strategic partnership with the Libyan coast guard, despite its record of human rights violations and the well-documented violence that migrants face in Libya. In this manner, the E.U. and its member states are prioritizing the externalization of migration controls to Libya and beyond over migrant lives and the provision of international refugee protection.

For much of this century, Malta detained the people who arrived on its shores without authorization. Immigration detention was a flagship policy for Europe’s newest migration gatekeeper. For over a decade, Malta was the only E.U. member state to automatically detain all migrants and refugees on arrival for up to 18 months.

As a result, the average length of detention in 2013 was 180 days, three times higher than any other E.U. member state. Cases won by former detainees at the European Court of Human Rights, alongside the long-awaited release of a national inquiry, confirmed the inhuman and violent conditions faced by people in detention.

Throughout the 21st century, political elites from the two main political parties constructed a crisis around the issue of migration in order to court the domestic electorate and attract support from the E.U.

Immigration detention was an important tool in Malta’s symbolic politics, despite its financial and human costs and its failure to deter arrivals or lead to deportation. Throughout the 21st century, political elites from the two main political parties constructed a crisis around the issue of migration in order to court the domestic electorate and attract support from the E.U.

Immigration detention has been politically useful in the construction of a migration crisis, as well as in the demonstration of an ostensible response to that crisis. Detention has helped contribute to the narrative that Malta is not an intended destination for these racialized and classed migrants, despite a well-established migrant community in Malta, the country’s dependence on migrant labor and the more nuanced narratives that migrants tell of sea crossings and the need to be rescued.

The current Labor administration reformed immigration detention in late 2015, ending the automatic, mandatory detention of asylum seekers. At this point, migrant arrivals had dropped significantly, due in large part to an informal agreement made between Italy and Malta in the wake of one of biggest shipwrecks in the Mediterranean. After more than 350 people drowned within half a mile of Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian government agreed to disembark all migrants rescued in the Central Mediterranean. The concessions made by Malta to reach this agreement remain shrouded in secrecy.

This year, that agreement unraveled with the election of Italy’s right-wing Lega party in coalition with the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. The new Conte government reversed its policy of allowing disembarkation, while pointing the finger at Malta for failing to contribute to rescue and disembarkation. Long-standing tensions between Malta and Italy have thus resurfaced.

As was the case before 2014, Malta and Italy have returned to using human beings whose lives are in immediate danger as bargaining chips in their E.U. negotiations, sidestepping their obligations to rescue and disembark with predictable deadly consequences.

Despite the barrage of criticism directed at both governments for criminalizing rescuers, neither government has budged. In Malta, both political parties continue to support the policy of containing NGO boats and limiting rescue and disembarkation, even as prominent members of the Catholic Church have raised concerns about the policy.

More important is the need to appear ‘strong’ in the face of Italy’s bullying and around the E.U. table. The need to maintain a sense of crisis around migration is paramount, despite the relatively low numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is walking a fine line, attempting to position himself as a progressive leader within the E.U., especially when it comes to burden sharing agreements, while remaining tough on migration at home. Thus, in the most recent standoff, Muscat allowed the Aquarius to dock in Malta after negotiating for the 141 people onboard to be resettled in Spain, France, Germany, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Yet, in continuing to criminalize and contain NGO activity at sea, the Maltese government contributes directly to deaths at sea — over 700 people died in the Central Mediterranean in June and July after Malta and Italy closed their ports. More important is the need to appear “strong” in the face of Italy’s bullying and around the E.U. table. The need to maintain a sense of crisis around migration is paramount, despite the relatively low numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean this year.

As the E.U. project frays and securitized borders fail to stop migration, new progressive and radical visions of borders and migration controls are necessary. In Malta, after more than a decade of using migration as a scapegoat for and distraction from the country’s ills, there is an opportunity to tread a new path.

The country could distinguish itself in Europe not only as a leader in the negotiations over more durable redistribution measures, but also as a leader committed to upholding international law and opposed to the erosion of international protection. Malta could distinguish itself as a country unwilling to criminalize humanitarian efforts and unwilling to reduce people in need of rescue to political bargaining chips.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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