1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Dreams of Europe

Ute Schaeffer (kh)November 24, 2007

Hundreds of African boat people arrive on the shores of the EU's smallest state, Malta every year. The tiny country is struggling to cope with the influx -- camps are bursting at the seams and xenophobia is on the rise.

close up shot of an African man, with his head wrapped in a blanket
Immigrants often have ardous journeys behind them when they finally arrive on landImage: AP

Three years ago, Jonas set out to make the long and dangerous journey to Europe from his home country, Eritrea. There was absolutely no reason to stay there, he said. Although Jonas finished high school with good marks and had found a job working for an oil company, his wages in Eritrea weren't nearly enough to feed his family.

"My aim was to get to Europe and get a better education and find a good job," he said. "Eritreans are people without hope. I wanted to have a chance in life, and I also wanted be able to give something back to my people."

Life-threatening crossing

But Jonas didn't expect that the crossing would be so dangerous. Many of his fellow passengers fell overboard during the journey and were left to drown. Others died of starvation on board.

Tuna net with people clinging to the rim of the net in the middle of the ocean
A boat load of Africans hang onto a tuna net after their vessel sank off Malta's coastImage: AP

Jonas was on his way to Italy, a common destination for boats leaving the coast of Africa. But as happens with many other unseaworthy vessels, his boat was picked up by a maritime patrol, and he ended up being interned in Malta. Jonas was released after a year, and now lives in a church-run refugee center.

Filled to capacity

Nearly 2,000 African boat people arrived in Malta last year.

A former British colony located 100km (62 miles) south of Sicily and 200km north of Libya, Malta has 405,000 inhabitants packed into seven tiny islands. It's the second most densely populated country in the world, and it's not happy about having to house illegal immigrants.

photo of the harbour of Malta
The numbers of rufugees arriving in Malta are less than Italy or Spain, but are growingImage: Illuscope

Malta, however, has a comparatively liberal and humanitarian refugee policy. Those who receive a humanitarian residency permit -- mainly given to people from countries affected by civil war and internal conflicts such as Somalia -- are allowed to live in refugee accommodation.

Under European Union law, asylum seekers must stay in the European country they first arrive in. Although Malta is so tiny, it is a sovereign member of the EU, so anyone who lands is stuck there.

To avert further humanitarian crises, Malta has proposed that migrants whose boats founder in non-EU waters would be distributed evenly among the 27 EU countries.

"The situation right now is just a complete mess," the Maltese interior minister, Tonio Borg, said several months ago. "It's a free-for-all. Each year 600 immigrants are dying on the threshold of Europe. It is unbelievable that on the doorstep of Europe we are having this tragic situation and not enough is being done."

Malta has three internment camps, which have been damned by Amnesty International and visiting members of the European Parliament.

Four women wrapped in brightly coloured cloth stand and wait
Somalian women wait at the Balzan refugee centerImage: picture alliance/dpa

And for those Africans lucky enough to live outside the camps, the relationship to the Maltese themselves is difficult. The country has virtually no history of immigration, and reported cases of xenophobia are on the increase.

"There are no real possibilities of getting on, of getting more training. Even if you have skills, you can't use them here. (On Malta), there's only work for unskilled labor," Jonas said.

Many ocean journeys begin in Mauritania

The Maltese government has said in the past that the country feels "alone and abandoned by the EU" on the issue of immigration. But in the African country of Mauritania, the government is also struggling to cope with the influx of immigrants hoping to travel onward to Europe.

Mauritania sits in the north-west of the African continent and its port town of Nouadhibou is one of the three main launching places for Africans, primarily from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Burkina Faso and Benin, who dream of working in the EU.

The town of Nouadhibou is near a well known "porous" border crossing point, where "even though the border controls are good, customs officers can be 'persuaded'," according to a report on African migrations routes by David van Moppes.

But once the potential immigrants enter Mauritania, it doesn't always mean they can get a spot on a smuggler's boat. In order to close off the country's 750 km of coastline, the Spanish Guardia Civil provides Mauritania with satellites, radar equipment, helicopters and fast boots to try.

Even if many of the want-to-be immigrants end up temporarily trapped in Mauritania, their aim remains Europe. And even Jonas in Malta isn't at the end of his travels. He refuses to give up his idea of a better life somewhere else in Europe.