The EU has a fundamental role to play in upholding human rights. The rights of migrants and asylum seekers are no exception to this, yet, as the poorly managed influx of arrivals in recent years has exposed, the EU has shirked its responsibility in this area. With the EU elections around the corner, much is at stake for Europe’s future stance on migration, particularly for those member states at the EU’s external border. We spoke to Neil Falzon from the aditus foundation about Malta’s experience as a receiving country of maritime migrants, why human rights must be at the core of any debate about migration, as well as the long-term erosion of rule of law in the country.

Green European Journal: What are the main concerns around the human rights of migrants and asylum seekers in Malta?

Neil Falzon: For a number of years, our largest concern was Malta’s policy of automatically detaining all migrants attempting to enter Malta irregularly. Years were spent advocating for Malta to bring its policy in line with international human rights laws. We developed coalitions with NGOs and brought cases before the European Court of Human Rights. A couple of years ago the government conceded and amended its reception policies quite radically, so people are no longer automatically and arbitrarily detained. Today people are taken into a more open system, and detention is only used where necessary and – generally – in conformity with legal requirements.

Our major priority now is the integration of migrants, interpreted in the broadest sense. Migrants and refugees continue to face serious challenges in making Malta their home. Difficulties are posed by discrimination and racist attitudes in the Maltese population as well as negative public discourse around migration. In 2017, the government published a national integration strategy and finally welcomed the idea of migrant integration, but we want to take it a step further, especially for people who we know are not able to go back home. For refugees fleeing war, life in Malta isn’t a temporary measure; Malta will be their home for the rest of their lives. However, it is almost impossible for people in that category to become Maltese nationals and they constantly need to renew their identity and working documents, reinforcing the idea that they will never fully be part of the community. Because they cannot naturalise as citizens, people remain ineligible for fundamental human rights like family reunification. People who have been here for 15 or 20 years can remain unable to bring over spouses and children. If you deny people certain rights, they will never integrate.

It seems that the current government has made some progress on migrant detention and integration, but what about search and rescue operations at sea?

The present government has taken quite unprecedented measures. In the summer of 2018, Malta blocked NGO rescue vessels from entering its ports and blocked them from leaving once they had entered. The captain of one NGO vessel, the Lifeline, is currently facing criminal charges in court. The European Union is slowly moving towards an exclusion approach to migration and, as part of that, Malta is taking an active role in border control and is closing its doors.

The European Union is slowly moving towards an exclusion approach to migration and, as part of that, Malta is taking an active role in border control and is closing its doors.

Migrants rescued by NGOs are not being allowed to disembark unless there are arrangements to move them to other member states, which is in effect forced relocation and can be dangerous. For many years Malta didn’t receive any boat arrivals because an informal agreement with Italy meant that all disembarkations happened there. This arrangement fell apart in summer 2018 when the new coalition entered government and Matteo Salvini became Minister of the Interior. Faced with more boat arrivals, Malta was not sufficiently prepared and open reception centres struggled to cope in terms of staff, social workers, food and supplies. Psychologists are needed to deal with trauma that refugees bring with them, as well as effective processes for asylum applications. The living conditions in the Ħal-Far open reception centre continue to be abysmal.

How were the increased numbers of arrivals last summer received by Maltese society?

The prevailing idea is that they are not wanted. For the past few years, the island and even the government was comfortable with the idea that there would be no new boat arrivals ever again. In terms of public perception and in the media, the refugee issue lost its former prominence. But boat arrivals are extremely visible. The number of people that arrive, where they are from, and their conditions make front-page news, and media furore stirs up public dissatisfaction.

The idea of people arriving by boat arouses public fears that we’re not securing our borders and that we can’t control who is coming in. Public sentiment has returned to being very negative, as it was some years ago. The EU is listening and playing to these fears.

What were the consequences of the political disputes between EU governments over the reception of people rescued at sea?

The number of deaths at sea increased, as they have been doing year on year. As soon as the Maltese government stopped the NGO vessels from leaving the ports, deaths increased because there was simply no one out rescuing people. The disputes also forced vessels to spend many days out at sea, which on a tiny rescue vessel is far from ideal. For those who have just been rescued in a group of 100 people, any extra day is dangerous. Search and rescue operations now play a difficult game because it cannot be guaranteed where or if people will be able to disembark, or whether the crew will face arrest and prosecution.

The fact that Malta and Italy kept arguing over where these boats should disembark, or waiting for countries such as Spain to intervene while men, women and children were stuck out at sea is abominable. This is an EU built on values that should respect and prioritise life before political discussions. The fact that these discussions happened, and were allowed to happen, without any serious intervention by the EU is worrying.

Search and rescue operations now play a difficult game because it cannot be guaranteed where or if people will be able to disembark, or whether the crew will face arrest and prosecution.

The recent case of the El Hiblu, in which three young migrants are facing life imprisonment for refusing to be returned to Libya, underlines all that is wrong with European policies on migration. Libya is not a safe place for migrants and refugees. The stories we hear are horrific. What’s still more horrific is how the EU is happy to support Libya in picking up people at sea and returning them to detention centres where we know – everyone knows – they run the risk of being tortured, raped, beaten and possibly killed.

What are the prospects for the future of search and rescue in the Mediterranean?

The scenario is uncertain and volatile because it ultimately depends on political whims. Governments must be reminded that under international maritime law, vessels are legally obliged to rescue anyone in distress. It’s not a political consideration. We are concerned that member states will take active measures to prevent NGOs from rescuing people. We hope it never comes to that point, but it’s not to be ruled out. The question will be whether people will be allowed to disembark in Italy, Malta, or Spain, or whether member states will turn boats back to Libya or other points of departure.

We also fear that if Italy and Malta do not invest sufficient resources in reception capacity, people will face horrible situations upon disembarkation. The situation in Italy has been terrible for years, also because Italy received hundreds of thousands of people. Malta will have similar problems if it doesn’t step up its efforts to prepare for maritime arrivals. This is what we have been saying since 2002. We can predict that every year an approximate number of people will be transported by boat, so let’s prepare for that arrival with staff, a warehouse full of clothes and food, and with emergency plans in place. What if a boat with 500 people arrives?

Governments must be reminded that under international maritime law, vessels are legally obliged to rescue anyone in distress. It’s not a political consideration.

Year after year the EU has been unable to reach an agreement on solidarity and support for member states at the border. Spain, Greece, Italy, Malta, and the north-eastern border states face huge pressure as the EU’s external borders, and yet the EU lacks a proper plan to support them. Because of that, border states behave the way they do, taking measures unilaterally outside of the EU’s monitoring and support mechanisms.

The EU did introduce a relocation scheme in 2015 but many countries refused to cooperate. What options are there for the EU to support border countries?

People get onto boats or use other illegal and unsafe means to reach Europe because they have no choice. Whether Europe likes it or not, refugees and migrants will try to find a way to Europe, so it doesn’t make much sense to continuously build up new walls. Why can’t we explore the possibility of safe and legal pathways into Europe? Once you block one illegal and unsafe route, smugglers and traffickers will find another. When the central Mediterranean route was blocked around 2013 because of a strong Frontex EU border control presence, refugees and migrants found ways around that by crossing into the Evros Region in Greece from its land border with Turkey.

In addition to legal and safe pathways, because some people will still find illegal and unsafe ways to access territory, we advocate an EU policy that embraces some degree of free movement for refugees. First member states need to have some responsibility for asylum claims, but people who have been granted protection should be able to move around the EU, with certain conditions and criteria. Maybe not full free movement from the outset, but the current situation where they are bound to remain at their first point of entry is untenable. Refugees, just like all of us, have their own human preference on where they would like to live. Many of the northern and central member states see it only in economic terms and fear relocation. But in practice, refugees and migrants tend to go to places where they have family, community, and language ties, as well as where there are economic opportunities.

There is often talk at the European level of third-country disembarkation, basically sending refugees somewhere other than the EU.

The idea of involving third countries is often based on the perceived success of the EU-Turkey Statement, which was a complete human rights failure. If we are unable to offer refugees protection in some of the richest countries in the world with robust human rights frameworks, we are shirking our responsibilities. Many third countries are facing severe economic and political difficulties and it is not fair for them to become Europe’s backdoor, even if there were willing to do so, which I doubt.

At national level, governments need to be more mature when they talk about migrants and refugees and to base their policies and legislation on research and facts. Our task as NGOs, and the human rights world generally, is to keep reminding governments and the electorate that we are speaking about human rights. People fleeing war and persecution have a right to seek asylum and national policies cannot ignore these fundamental human rights. The big challenge we face is that the space to engage with human rights is getting smaller and smaller across the world.

Since the murder of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017, concerns around the rule of law in Malta have grown. What is the situation today in Malta?

Over a year after her assassination, we still do not know who was behind it and we doubt the integrity of the investigation because of possible political interference with the police. The government has not acknowledged the gravity of the assassination and has ridiculed and bullied her family, as well as supportive NGOs. The result is a feeling of impunity and fear.

For the past 30 years, public office has been used to enrich friends and family to the detriment of the nation.

Her death came at a time when the deterioration in the quality of governance and the rule of law in Malta was already a concern. For the past 30 years, public office has been used to enrich friends and family to the detriment of the nation. We comment on corruption at the highest levels of government and flagrant disregard for fundamental principles of democracy with the awareness that every time we do so, we step closer to being public enemies, as we have been told directly and indirectly.

Much more needs to be done to remind the government that this is no way to run a democratic country. We are not at the level of Hungary or Poland, but the road is becoming just as serious. The people have not quite grasped the gravity of the situation because, economically, the country is doing extremely well. But, because of ineffective policies and corruption, this economic boom is not reaching the most vulnerable. Malta’s most at-risk individuals, migrants, refugees, people with disabilities, the elderly, all face extreme economic hardship and social exclusion.

How do you explain the long-term erosion of the rule of law and corruption? We spoke to anti-corruption activists from Romania, and they link Romania’s problems to its particular experience under socialism.

Socialism doesn’t apply, but the same logic does. Post-independence in 1964, the government brought about necessary economic changes but failed to address fundamental civic questions. We are not an uneducated nation, but important points such as democracy, nationhood, the role of government, and the definition of corruption have not been properly tackled. Malta is a small island state and culturally, we are accustomed to relying on personal connections. Successive governments have played on this political immaturity and entrenched corruption to remain in power. Malta has a long history of public resources going to friends of the party and there is no sign of this stopping. When rules are violated at the highest level, there are no consequences. This trickles down and makes rules less and less important in everyday business and life.

How does this relate to Malta’s two-party system?

I won’t comment too much because aditus is an independent NGO. However, Malta’s two main political parties, whilst competing for power, have implemented measures whereby it is extremely difficult for third voices to enter the scene. They have done this by working the electoral boundaries and by manipulating public media. Freedom of information can no longer be taken for granted. Few independent voices speak about basic facts, let alone engage in critical debate. Third parties and other political voices have attempted to emerge, but have struggled. This is why we constantly call for constitutional reform. Malta needs to revise its constitution to get out of its post-colonial mindset and become a more progressive and inclusive society.

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