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Europe

German aid remains a 'drop in the bucket' for Malta's refugee problem

During her first visit to Malta, German Chancellor Angela Merkel focused talks on the shared European currency, largely ignoring Malta's most urgent problem: its refugee overflow.

An African refugee to Malta

Many refugees are caught with no prospects of a better life

German Chancellor Angela Merkel kicked off her two-day Mediterranean tour on Monday in Malta, focusing talks on securing Europe's shared euro currency.

Little attention was paid to a more pressing issue for Malta: The small country of 410,000 is inundated with African refugees, who travel there by boat.

Merkel briefly acknowledged the problem during her visit Monday, ahead of her visit to Cyprus on Tuesday, saying Malta needed to work more closely with African leaders on the matter.

Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi meanwhile thanked Merkel for accepting some 100 recognized asylum seekers from Malta since Merkel promised Gonzi two years ago she would help alleviate the country's burden.

But Germany's assistance remains a drop in the ocean, considering some 1,800 refugees have entered Malta in recent years, said Mario Caruana from the Maltese Justice Ministry.

Malta continues to urge the European Union to form an agreement with African states to stop illegal immigration.

'Payoffs not enough'

Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi (left)

Gonzi (left) urged the EU to form an agreement with African states

"Immigration is the result of economic and political instabilities," Gonzi told reporters at a press conference on Monday, adding that paying large sums to transit states would not solve the problem.

Gonzi added that EU member states must hold talks with Libya, the country of departure for a large number of illegal immigrants to Malta.

Two years ago, Libya and Italy reached an agreement by which all undocumented migrants caught by Italian authorities in international waters are sent to Libya. The policy also benefits Malta; since the policy took effect, hardly any boats make it as far as Malta any more. Last year, only about 100 of the so-called "boat people" arrived in the country.

Desperate conditions

But many refugees already live in Malta, and for them the reality of their new country often does not live up to the dream.

In a former classroom in the city of Marsa once slated for demolition, refugees sleep in bunk beds with 20 strangers.

"It is not a better life," said refugee Amadou from Ivory Coast, pointing to some chicken being fried on a camping stove.

bedroom at the Marsa Open Center for refugees

Refugees in Malta often face difficult living conditions

"You see the way we are sleeping. You see we are not working. It's all very difficult," said Amadou, who feels that Malta has become a prison - a one-way street to nowhere.

This is the existence facing most refugees in Malta. The few refugees who were granted asylum in Germany are the lucky winners in the game, as Germany and France are the destinations most stranded refugees in Malta dream of.

Omahad del Asis Mahmud is one of them. He spent six days on a boat without water or food before he and his fellow passengers were found by Maltese coast guards. "It's to die or to survive. Chances are 50/50," he said.

Burdened beyond capacity

Malta bears the heaviest burden of refugees worldwide, relative to its small population.

"There have been various independent studies - studies not carried out by Malta, but by the European Parliament - which have shown that Malta carries much more than it can possibly contain," said Mario Caruana.

Though Merkel acknowledged that Malta is particulary pressured by its immigration problem, the EU's focus has recently been concentrated on the Greek-Turkish border - the most popular entry point for undocumented migrants to Europe.

Greece stirred controversy earlier this month with its announced plans to build a fence to keep refugees from entering its borders.

Author: Tillmann Kleinjung/sst (dpa, Reuters)
Editor: David Levitz

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