Malta: the epicenter of EU asylum drama | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.07.2012
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Malta: the epicenter of EU asylum drama

The EU is discussing ways of harmonizing its asylum policy. The Mediterranean island of Malta lies on the frontline of the immigration battle, but its policies for dealing with asylum seekers have come under criticism.

Malta is the smallest EU member state, but it has more asylum seekers per inhabitant than any other European country.

This year alone, 900 people have already arrived on its shores, most of them by boat on their way from North Africa to mainland Europe. Up to 60 percent are proven to be in need of international attention.

The Maltese government has created large detention centers to house the migrants. One of them, the Safi Barracks, consists of two large warehouses, and is tucked away behind Malta's main airport.

But conditions in the detention center are hot and stuffy - up to 200 people sleep in bunk beds in one large dorm. The ventilation has broken, and the heat is unbearable. One man claims he has to queue up for three hours for food.

Bunk beds in Safi Barracks

The detention centers are overcrowded

In limbo

Some, especially those from West Africa, have to wait many months for a verdict on their applications. Mohammed has been in the center for the past 15 months:

"They give us one set of clothes only," he told DW. "Afterwards, they give us one more set, but after that, nothing. I have had two pairs of boxers for a long time, for one year ... All of us are sick. There is too much heat."

"They picked us up in the sea three days ago. We were handcuffed and brought here," says Anthony from Nigeria. "I am hoping to get to Italy," he adds.

There is a small yard outside, with tall fences, like a prison. People cling to the scraps of shade in the corners of the yard.

Complaints from rights groups

Human rights organizations have criticized the inhumane conditions in the detention centers. But despite such complaints, the Maltese government has refused to change tack. Instead, they are calling for more support from the rest of the EU.

At the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs in the Maltese capital, Valetta, Director of Policy Joseph St. John explains why:

"The island is very small and it has a small labor market," he said. "So the pressures are significant, and in Malta's case solidarity is needed in the form of relocation and resettlement. What we did was to promote our case, explaining what the situation in the country is and why we need to help each other, especially in view of the fact that we are developing a common European asylum system. How can a common system work if some member states have to shoulder a very significant burden?"

Malta does benefit from a pilot program called Eurema. Since 2005, some 230 people have been relocated to other European countries. Around 1,000 people have also been resettled in the United States. But that has made little impact on the problems of overcrowding in the Safi Barracks.

Men from Somalia in Safi Barracks

The men wait up to 18 months in detention

New EU asylum policy

Now all eyes are on Brussels, where it is hoped that EU leaders will finalize a common European asylum system by the end of 2012. The aim is to introduce common standards for receiving refugees and processing asylum claims, creating a so-called single protection area.

There is hope that this will improve conditions for migrants in Malta. Fabrizio Ellul of Malta's UNHCR representation.

"There are some centers which are good. Others leave a lot to be desired. One thing we definitely do not agree on is the detention policy. In principle we think that asylum seekers should not be detained."

Katrine Camilleri from the NGO Jezuit Refugee Service stresses that more needs to be done:

"For us it is important to draw attention to the fact that this is not Malta's issue," she said. "It is Malta's issue, but not only Malta's issue. We are capable of tackling border control together, but how capable are we of tackling the issues of hospitality and protection as a whole? That is my question."

While the EU works to finalize a common asylum system, people on this small island are looking beyond 2012. Some are looking for new forms of European solidarity, others are looking to improve the conditions of the Maltese asylum seekers. And the refugees themselves will be hoping their their long wait in detention will soon come to an end.

Author: Laurens Cerulus, Valetta
Editor: Joanna Impey