With Italy firmly blocking its seaports, the tiny island country of Malta has emerged as an unlikely and reluctant lifeline for migrants making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
On Sunday, Maltese authorities allowed a boat carrying 65 migrants to dock after the vessel had been denied entry into Italy. It was at least the third such incident this month in which Malta came to the aid of people stranded by Italy’s strict closed-door policy on migration, highlighting what analysts and migrant rights advocates have called an unsustainable European approach to illegal maritime migration.
Malta, which has its own stringent immigration policies, has struck ad hoc deals with larger European nations to receive migrants — a system, critics say, that is predicated on keeping people in limbo in dangerous conditions until agreements can be hashed out.
Though Mediterranean migration has slowed dramatically since the surges in 2015 and 2016, the issue has taken on a new urgency since hard-line Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini took office in June 2018.
Italy often conducted sea rescues but since Salvini’s term began, “there’s been a real shift,” said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative.
“When he closed the ports, he dramatically increased the pressure on Malta,” Knaus said. “But everybody in Europe knows that Malta cannot be the place where you can disembark people to stay in large numbers.”
With Italy unwilling to allow ships carrying migrants to dock at Italian ports, Malta has recently stepped in at the 11th hour and bring migrants to shore. But Malta, which has a history of restrictive immigration policies, will do so only if other European countries agree to redistribute them. As the negotiations unfold, weary and sometimes ill migrants wait on board ships stalled at sea.
It’s a pattern experts say highlights the failure of European leaders to craft a humane and consistent migration policy.
“At the moment, it’s a crisis every single time. And that’s not sustainable,” Knaus said. “It’s like a Greek tragedy and you already know the end.”
Maltese authorities evacuated the 65 migrants on Sunday from a German-flagged rescue ship, the Alan Kurdi. The ship, run by the German nongovernmental organization, Sea-Eye, had rescued the migrants from a crowded rubber boat off the Libyan coast last week. It is named for a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned when his family attempted to cross the Mediterranean from Greece to Turkey in 2015. A viral photo of his lifeless body washed up on a beach moved millions across the world.
The Alan Kurdi had originally tried to dock on the Italian island of Lampedusa, but Italian police barred it from entering. The vessel then changed course and headed for Malta, where rescuers appealed to the government to let the ship — carrying three sick migrants urgently needing medical care — enter Maltese waters.
Malta originally objected. But after the German government and European Commission brokered a deal to relocate the migrants to other E.U. countries, Malta relented and sent its armed forces to take the migrants off the boat.
Italy’s restrictive immigration policies appear to be forcing Malta into a moral and political reckoning: Should it follow Italy’s lead and prevent migrants from coming ashore? Or should it take its cues from France and Germany instead and allow migrants stranded at sea to disembark?
Malta, a small Mediterranean island nation perched between Tunisia and Sicily, has long functioned as a gateway to Europe. But that role took on an additional political significance when Malta joined the E.U. in 2004. The country suddenly became one of the closest entry points to the E.U. for people fleeing Africa, ushering in a surge of illegal migration by sea.
With a population of less than 500,000 and a land area encompassing only 122 square miles, Malta is Europe’s most densely populated country. E.U. regulations require asylum requests to be processed by the member state in which a migrant first disembarks. Ever since Malta joined the E.U., authorities and residents have worried that the island would be overwhelmed with new arrivals, according to David Zammit, a senior law lecturer at the University of Malta.
Since then, the country has taken a hard-line approach to immigration. Until 2015, Malta automatically placed those who arrived illegally in detention centers, sometimes for months. And it would often direct ships in distress to other ports, like Lampedusa.
Still, Zammit said, the Maltese government had a red line: “We can’t let them drown at sea.”
This past year has tested that commitment — particularly given Salvini’s rise. In addition to closing ports to migrants, he has ushered through a law imposing fines of up to $57,000 for boat captains and owners who dock in Italy without permission. Italian authorities recently arrested a German ship captain who brought migrants to shore.
Malta and Italy have maintained a close relationship, though the two countries have sometimes clashed over who bears responsibility for accepting migrants. The result: standoffs that have left migrants waiting at sea, until humanitarian concerns on board force a European country — often Malta — to cave.
Germany has pledged to take up to 40 of the people Maltese authorities brought to shore Sunday. Previously, France, Portugal and Spain have also agreed to take migrants who disembark in Malta.
In the absence of a larger E.U. resolution to the question of who is responsible for bringing Mediterranean migrants to shore, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has begun to cooperate more closely with moderate European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron to craft such case-by-case arrangements.
Yet even as Malta steps in at the last minute to grant migrants entry to Europe, the government has made it harder for humanitarian organizations to keep boats there.
Carlotta Weibl, a spokeswoman for Sea-Eye said her group used to launch rescue boats from Malta until the government evicted their ships last year.
Weibl said she sees this as a spillover effect of Salvini’s hard-line stance. But she said other European states share the blame for what she described as a flawed system for handling illegal maritime migration.
“Malta is a super tiny island, so they say of course we cannot take all the people on our own; other European member states have to take people as well,” she said. “These ad hoc solutions we have now, they waste a lot of time and resources and they place people in danger.”
Waiting at sea, with uncertainty lingering and supplies dwindling, takes a psychological toll on migrants, she said.
In the wake of the Alan Kurdi standoff Sunday, German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer wrote a letter to Salvini imploring him to rethink his policy and open Italy’s ports.
Salvini delivered a blunt response to that letter via Facebook live-stream: “No, no, no, absolutely not.”
Meanwhile, the Italian and Maltese foreign ministers issued a joint statement saying “it is no longer permissible to proceed on a case-by-case basis, seeking solutions in emergencies, with growing political difficulties and very serious hardships.”
They called for a “structured permanent mechanism” in the E.U. approach to migration and requested the E.U. Foreign Affairs Council discuss the matter at its next meeting in July.