Migrant crisis: Malta seeks solutions to stem the tide

Rescued migrants watch as the body of person who died after fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retrieved by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta on April 20, 2015 Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Rescued migrants and the bodies of those who did not survive arrive in Malta on Monday

The corpses of more than 25 migrants who drowned in the latest catastrophic shipwreck were ferried to Malta on Monday, rekindling humanitarian organisations' fears that 2015 is set to be the deadliest on record unless a safety net is cast.

NGOs on the Mediterranean island underlined the need to dramatically shift the goalposts if the surge in deaths is to be stemmed.

But their proposed solutions are unlikely to resonate with many of Malta's 420,000 inhabitants, who feel European states have ignored the migration problems in the Mediterranean for too long.

The sun-drenched tourist haven of Malta disguises the tragedy unfolding at its doorstep, though many are uneasy about the chaos engulfing Libya just 354km (220 miles) away.

Sensational media claims that radical Islamists could infiltrate boatloads of migrants have served only to inflate irrational fears.

Angry comments

The attitude towards asylum seekers in Malta has shifted dramatically, from the compassion shown when the first boats started landing in 2002, towards indifference, and, in the last few years, outright racism among sectors of society.

In the aftermath of two shipwrecks, that killed at least 1,000 in the last week, one tasteless commentator even uploaded a Facebook post saying he was put off fish because they were now feeding on "Ebola-infected corpses".

Many who posted comments on the Times of Malta website blamed the migrants themselves for taking the trip in the first place.

Image caption Malta has one of the highest per capita refugee acceptance rates in the world

Maria Pisani, director of Integra Foundation, a Maltese not-for-profit organisation, says the solution should be a concerted effort to strengthen search and rescue operations and provide safer access to asylum.

That way, she says, refugees would not be forced to take this route in the first place.

The policy of containment and strengthening of EU borders has contributed to deaths and prolonged human suffering, Ms Pisani says.

She believes that increased efforts to beef up security will simply serve to redirect smuggling routes elsewhere - possibly to deadlier routes.

Neil Falzon, director of Aditus, a Maltese human rights group, agrees. Creating camps or blockades in a war-torn country like Libya is out of the question, he says, since it is unable to protect its own nationals, let alone anyone else.

If solutions are to be found, he says, politicians need to think of the reasons why people are getting onto boats.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has changed his tone on migrants

Mr Falzon, a human rights lawyer, says: "While there is some awareness about Syria, nobody knows if and what the EU is doing to improve the situation in places like Eritrea and Somalia, from where people have been fleeing for years as the world looks on with indifference.

"Migrants flee their home for different reasons. If we bundle them all together, nothing will work.

"We need to keep in mind that no proposal or measure will totally eliminate the boat situation. We need to be ready to accept that this issue will persist, even if we have the best solution."

Mr Falzon believes that EU countries can start helping by offering visas from their embassies in non-European states. Ultimately, traffickers need to be stopped or at least curbed.

"If you talk to any migrant in Malta they will all tell you traffickers are not hard to find; it's an open business."

No more room?

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has dramatically shifted tone and attitude since July 2013, when he threatened to push back a group of migrants to Libya to pile pressure on EU states to act. He now speaks about the need for compassion.

Mr Muscat and his Italian counterpart Matteo Renzi are spearheading the regional response, but many on the island state are determined that Malta, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, cannot take any more migrants.

Malta has one of the highest per capita refugee acceptance rates in the world, and its inhabitants are expecting the European bloc to throw them a lifeline.

For years, Malta has appealed to other EU states to absorb some of its refugees. The response has been abysmal.

"Ultimately, the problem is that nobody wants refugees as neighbours," Mr Falzon said.