By Phillip Martin
Not far off the coast of Malta, the coast guard has intercepted a leaky boat carrying dozens of Africans, and it’s sinking fast. Donning gloves, burly Maltese sailors pull men and women from their flooded dinghy to a hanging ladder.
Thousands of other dark-skinned immigrants have made similar attempts to reach continental Europe through Maltese waters, said Major Wallace Camilleri of Malta’s Maritime Squadron:
“It’s not relevant for me how many do cross over,” he said. “How many do make it. Sometimes I ask myself ‘how many do not make it?’”
These illegal migrants are among the lucky ones. A short time later the coast guard enters the port of Valletta — Malta’s capital – carrying the latest group of accidental tourists to come to this island nation.
“We wanted to reach Italy but they told us you cannot go in Italy,” said Ahmed from Somalia, one of the men among them. “You have to come to Malta.”
And once here, illegal African migrants like Ahmed often languish in detention for up to 18 months. That’s how long it can take to determine their status, and whether they’ll be permitted to go on to continental Europe, sent home or remain here.
Dr. Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici is Malta’s Justice Minister. He said his nation of 400,000 –the smallest of the European Union’s 27 countries — is trying to balance humanitarian obligations while protecting Malta from a tidal wave of economic migrants.
Bonnici said African migrants understand all too well the advantages of reaching continental Europe.
“Those advantages are naturally abused by those who are not entitled to that status,” Bonnici said. “So these persons realize that coming to Malta means that they will be put into these detention centers and they’ll have to wait. And if they are not entitled they will remain in detention for 18 months.”
And Ta’ Kandja is where many of the illegal immigrants find themselves within hours of setting foot in Malta: a detention center surrounded by barbed-wire.
“We are at the solidarity block within the Ta’ Kandja detention center,” Bonnici said. 96 people can be accommodated in each detention center.”
Lt. Brian Gatt, a six-foot seven army officer, supervises this prison. We enter a holding area with dozens of bunk beds. Among the detainees here is Obaswan Osagakenney, who said he was fleeing Muslim-Christian fighting in Central Nigeria:
I ask him: “Would you have come if you knew you were going to be here for 18 months?”
He first looks at the floor and then calmly says: “For me I believe it would be better for me because I was running for my life and if I had a place where my life would be secure for the next 18-months, I think it is better”
But because of its strict immigration rules, the European Union rarely grants humanitarian refugee status to Nigerians. So just what will happen to Osagakenny — and when – is unclear.
The same uncertain fate awaits an asylum seeker from Eritrea, who — in spite of the EU’s view of his country as a major violator of human rights — was surprised to learn that he could be held at Ta’ Kandja for as long as a year and a half.
“Eight months or 18 months? We came to get freedom,” he said. “I surprised if they say 18 months, what can we do. We can’t do anything.”
Maltese officials hope that the country’s strict detention policy will discourage other African migrants from making the hazardous journey from Libya across the Mediterranean.
But critics, like Father Joseph Cassar of Jesuit Refugee Service of Malta, call the policy unfair.
“The conditions in our detention centers really leave much to be desired, and as far as I’m concerned do not meet the minimal standards established by the European Union,” Cassar said. “And we’re talking here about administrative detention, so it’s not the result of a judicial process, but administrative detention for illegal entry into Malta’s territory, which last for as long as the refugee procedure determination takes. In other words, if it takes eight months for your application to be examined and determined than you’re going to be eight months in detention.”
What’s worse, Father Cassar says the policy is racist. He argues that in the 1990s, thousands of Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats fled the Balkan Wars and found safe haven In Malta – a benefit that he says is often denied dark-skinned Africans.
“I would say skin color in this particular circumstance has a lot to do with it,” Cassar said. “Because it makes people in a homogenous society, as the Maltese one would be or would have been until quite recently, that makes people more visible. There are many more foreigners living on Malta who come from countries that are not members of the European Union. In other words third country nationals from other European countries. These people would be far less visible because they are of the same racial background.”
For his part, Ta’ Kandja prison superintendent Brian Gatt scoffs at the notion that race has anything to do with Malta’s detention policy. He said the guidelines are needed to send a firm message to illegal migrants that life in Europe is not all its cracked up to be:
“Because in many places in Africa they receive a lot of satellite TV stations which picture Europe as being paved with gold,” Gatt said. “And that is a reason why so many people cross from Africa to Europe. They think that they will make money, become rich, which is not the case. Because in Europe, everyone can see with his own eyes where many of these people end up. Underneath card board boxes on the fringes of cities with nothing to do, begging, etc. etc.”
And Mike Cassar, a supervisor at the Detention facility, and no relation to Father Cassar, says Malta treats all of its detainees well.
“They are safe, and they know they have a person here, a team of people here, who care about them,” Cassar said. “Because if you don’t care about them, you’re no good for this job. We don’t get trouble here. We don’t get trouble here.”
But in 2009, there was trouble. According to Maltese officials, Somali detainees rioted to protest their detention, and it took dozens of police to restore order.
And several months ago, residents of an open center protested a government ban on the use of a loudspeaker system to announce the Muslim call to prayer. Meanwhile, migrants continue to arrive in Malta, in search of new lives and opportunities.
What many of them don’t know is that in many places the doors to entry into Europe are slamming shut. Download MP3