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Malta immigration woes

Mark Mardell | 09:05 UK time, Friday, 5 June 2009

Valletta harbour/coastguard boatMALTA

Over white wine and the rather lovely local fizzy drink made of bitter oranges, the conversation between five women is growing heated.
"These people don't want to be here. Send them on their way!"
"Where? Nobody wants them!"
"Why bring them in here? They are costing us lots of money."
"Because they are in danger. They are dying."
"It's not my problem."
"Someone once said to me 'Don't let them touch land, give them water and push them out'. I said 'Would you have the guts to do it?' I would, I would give them food, make sure they have no illness and send them off."

I had been trying to get a discussion going between a group of women, old school friends meeting for their monthly reunion, but was now quite surplus to requirements as they went at it hammer and tongs. Malta is consumed by the debate over immigration and the role of the European Union.

It is the one country I have been to in the last few weeks where the EU and its policies are central to the European elections. The deregulation of buses and the state of the road are issues. The ban on shooting migrating birds looms large. But it is the fate of human migrants that dominates all else. Coastguard scanning with binoculars

It's true that migration has driven much of human history but it is difficult to credit that Europe seems such a Shangri-La that thousands of people travel for thousands of miles and risk death and appalling hardship to reach our shores. But they do, and when they get into trouble on the high seas the EU's smallest country is in charge of coordinating rescues across 250,000 sq km of sea.

The line is thin indeed: 236 men and women with nine boats between them make up the Maltese Maritime Division. They have help from the EU's frontier patrol agency, Frontex, aircraft from Luxembourg and boats from Germany. EU money will buy them new boats. They're needed.

"If you've seen Apocalypse Now those are the boats going up and down the Mekong Delta." One of the officers from the Maltese equivalent of the navy points out one of their Vietnam-era craft in their main base in Valletta.

Chopping through the deep blue seas in baking sunshine, the boat we go to sea on was made by East Germany, when there was such a country. Their vessels may not be the most modern, but their mission is both very contemporary and very complex.

Not a job for those who love the smell of burning napalm in the morning, it is a combination of gentle police action and search-and-rescue, as politicians seek to satisfy the conflicting demands of voters who expect humanity, but are wary of illegal immigration.Malta coastguards

Malta is not only the smallest of the EU countries, it is also the most southern lying south of both Tunis and Tangiers. Size and geography combine to make illegal immigration such an acute problem.

Draw a line between Tripoli and Sicily and you hit Malta. People from all over East and West Africa, either fleeing political strife or simply looking for a better life, make their way at great hardship across the desert and on to Libya. From there, they hope to get to Europe, which now has very few internal borders.

They pay often untrustworthy middle men ("people smugglers" if you must) for the passage in often hopelessly inadequate boats. Many end up having to be rescued, and taken to a detention centre in Malta.

The island joined the EU in 2004 and there's some dispute if this made it a desirable target. The government line is that most are heading for Italy, and then for the rest of the EU and they simply wash up in Maltese waters by accident.

The figures are ambiguous. In 2002 there were 1,500 people detained. The year Malta joined the EU only 500. But it's been rising since. Last year there were 2,800. This year a record number until April. Since then, nothing.

The boat's skipper scans the horizon through powerful binoculars. He doesn't expect to see any refugee boats looming into sight.

The man with the seemingly unenviable task of coordinating Malta's search and rescue operation seems to relish it, and Major Andrew Mallia spells out, with impressive clarity, the priorities.

He tells me that if a ship is spotted they will rescue the people on board if they are in trouble, but otherwise must simply warn them against illegal immigration, if they are outside Malta's territorial waters.

But once inside it is imperative to stop them landing. If they did they could simply disappear or, as one man did, drown in the last five metres to shore. Still force must not be used against them. This isn't just an injunction against armed force: persuasion, not compulsion, has to be used. The would-be immigrants must be persuaded to come on board. This is done with great care, so their boat is not capsized, and people are taken on board by dinghy, only five or six at a time, so they can be searched for weapons and any troublemakers isolated.Inside rescue helicopter

We take to the air, in one of the helicopters that coordinate rescues. Again, beautiful views of the island and coast, but not a boat of migrants in sight. It's thought Libya has acted to destroy the yards where the special boats are made and that they have fired on ships that are leaving, perhaps enthusiastic to get big EU money for dealing with the problem.

But many Maltese feel the EU's large countries are not doing their share. The Maltese want "burden-sharing", which means other EU countries taking some of the migrants, who are currently packed into one of the most crowded countries on Earth. Other EU countries don't want them, and don't want to encourage would-be migrants. "Go to Malta and get locked up" is one thing. "Go to Malta and get free passage to Germany, the UK or France" is quite another.

I am here for a film I am doing for Sunday's election night programme, which is meant to illustrate how different outcomes in the election might influence different policies. It is a worthwhile commission, but the conclusion will not be as straightforward a guide as the editor might have hoped.

Yes, any future immigration package will be amended and passed or rejected by MEPs. Both main parties here want "burden-sharing," but Labour say they thought of it first, and that the ruling Nationalists were tardy.

It is fair to say if the socialists are in the ascendant then the package will much more liberal than if the centre-right hold sway. But in Malta in many ways the Labour Party, members of the European Socialist group, have a harder, more confrontational line than the ruling Nationalist Party, which is part of the centre-right.

It's hardly surprising that the women arguing so passionately can't tell me how the European Parliament is relevant to their debate. "You vote red or blue. That's the way it is," one says with finality.

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