Valletta - How Malta is being squeezed between the EU's asylum and migration policies


Picture of Isabelle Calleja Ragonesi
Isabelle Calleja Ragonesi

Among the great international relations controversies since the end of the Cold War has been the tension between state security and that of humans, notably in the case of global migration flows. A sizable number of people seeking asylum in Europe encounter the paradox of the Schengen agreement, which facilitates internal freedom of movement in the EU, but requires the reinforcement of the EU’s external borders.

The result of this has been a robust pan-European asylum policy, but migration policies are still under the aegis of each member state. The 2003 Dublin regulation requires migrants to apply for and live out their asylum in the member state they first entered. This has created a mess of overlapping and exclusive jurisdictions which leave both the asylum seeker and those states that have become their destinations of choice in a security dilemma.

This is certainly the case for Malta. Its shores are the most southern border of the EU, and while it’s an island state of only 316 square km, it has a search and rescue area in the Mediterranean Sea of 250,000 square km that stretches from Tunisia to Greece. The UNHCR refugees agency noted in 2013 that per capita, Malta receives the highest number of asylum seekers of all industrialised countries. Just over 84% of those who made asylum applications were accepted, yet the international focus has been on Malta’s detention policy, which has seen asylum seekers incarcerated for up to 18 months, often in sub-standard conditions. Human Rights Watch, the UN High Commission for refugees, and Maltese NGOs have all criticised this policy, and two recent cases brought against Malta at the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) have reprimanded this practice for breaching human rights and failing to provide asylum seekers with a secure environment. The court’s  ruling recommended changes to Maltese law and policy.

The Maltese government has slowly improved the situation. At present, a few hundred people are still in detention, with the stays varying between three and eight months, though lengthier in the case of those who have been rejected. In the past year, a shake-up has ensured that those running the centers are competent and keen to see change. Malta’s home affairs minister has said that the government will be taking all necessary steps to comply with the relevant ECHR judgments. Amendments to Malta’s immigration and refugees legislation will enable anyone detained to challenge that from the initial stages onwards, and not just when the duration of detention is excessive. Other amendments will address such issues as the review of detention orders.

Meanwhile, though, the security of small Mediterranean states like Malta remains in limbo. According to the EU’s Frontex agency, the central Mediterranean region was the busiest migration route used by irregular immigrants over the past five years. And North Africa’s political instability is expected to lead to “high migration pressure” this summer. So long as EU asylum and migration policies remain out of sync, migrant flows will not supply the EU’s labour market needs. In Malta, the cry is that just as the walls of detention centres need to come down, the walls created by Dublin II must also be removed.

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