VALLETTA, Malta — A migrant flood has overwhelmed the tiny sun-splashed island nation of Malta over the past five years, stirring charges of human-rights violations, taxing the nation’s tiny navy and fueling xenophobia.
The rocky archipelago, about 55 miles off the coast of Sicily, is best known as a tourist destination. But the start of summer brings mostly African migrants, crossing the Mediterranean in rickety overcrowded boats, on their way to seeking a better life in Europe. Boatloads appear almost daily.
"All of a sudden we saw quite a phenomenon; hundreds and hundreds of migrants started appearing in our waters," said Lt. Col. Emmanuel Mallia, the officer in charge of Malta's air, land and sea operations.
Malta's embattled government made a fresh plea last week for EU assistance after the military detained another 28 illegal migrants and Interior Minister Tonio Borg warned that hundreds of others were dying trying to reach Europe.
“The situation right now is a complete mess, it’s a free for all,” he told his EU counterparts, days after immigrants whose boat capsized were left clinging to a fishing net for three days while Mediterranean nations argued over who was responsible for them.
For those who reach this 122-square-mile outcropping of limestone and medieval fortifications, where more than 1,900 people reside per square-mile and jobs are scarce, the relief of survival is quickly followed by the realization that the journey is over.
Upon arrival, migrants deemed to be from "safe" countries like Egypt or Morocco are immediately deported, but the rest spend up to a year and a half locked in detention centers while their cases are assessed.
Once released, they are moved to open centers or tent cities. But, due to European Union regulations, even those who are granted asylum or humanitarian protection are barred from leaving the country.
Escape from the island is near impossible. "Malta's a stone in the sea," said Somali immigrant Mohammed Abdullahi Hassan, who has dreams of living elsewhere in Europe or even the United States.
“There’s no way to go back,” said Warsame Ali Garare, who fled lawless Mogadishu nearly four years ago. There also is “no way to go to another European country, no way to integrate properly in this community. I don’t see my future in general,” he said.
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Malta’s annual intake of about 1,800 migrants is small when compared to the 37,000 "boat people" disgorged in southern Spain, mostly via the Canary Islands, and the 22,000 who washed up in Italy last year.
But, given the country's population of 400,000, roughly the same as Omaha, Neb., "every migrant that lands in Malta is like 200 landing in Spain," Lt. Col. Mallia said.
Meantime, the Maltese, a homogenous, Roman Catholic society that until recently saw few immigrants, feel under siege from the foreigners — at least half of whom are Muslim.
“We have to give them help when they come here, but not for a long time,” said Carmen Bongailas, who sells jewelry at a small market in Birkirkara, the country’s largest city. “If they would continue to come to Malta … and Malta is a small place … they could overtake us,” she said.
Further fueling tensions are worries that terrorists could use Malta as a jumping-off point for attacks in Europe. In April, it was reported that a Libyan terrorist arrested in Britain made it from Malta to the United Kingdom in 2002 after paying smugglers 2,000 British pounds ($3,977).
The man, identified as "AS" is "an Islamic extremist who has engaged actively and as a senior member with a terrorist group clearly engaged in support work for jihadist activities," wrote Britain's Special Immigration Appeals Commission, adding that his cell was probably about to go into the operational stage of an attack in Europe.
Not unlike the pattern in other European nations, the tide of immigrants has strengthened far-right political parties.
Immigrants “are heading for Europe because it’s like the American dream; they’re just taking advantage of us,” said Martin Degiorgio, spokesperson for the Republican National Alliance, adding that even genuine refugees could have opted to go to other African countries.
If migrants can’t be repatriated, “we cannot allow them out of (closed) detention centers,” said Degiorgio, whose license plate reads “DVX”, which is Latin for “Duce,” the title adopted by Italy's World War II fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Not unexpectedly, the tension has triggered racist incidents and sentiments. “The buses are full of black people and they smell,” said Manuel Attard, a taxi driver from Birzebbuga, a town near a large immigrant tent city.
Meantime, attacks have been carried out on both immigrants and groups that work with them, including several arsons on homes and vehicles belonging to Jesuit Refugee Service workers.
The Maltese also complain that wages are being driven down. Conversely, migrants say they aren’t being paid enough.
Terry Gosden, the manager of the Marsa Open Center for immigrants, said many of the residents were white-collar professionals in their home countries, but struggle to find jobs as day laborers on Malta.
“This is illiterate work, and I am educated,” said a former Eritrean soldier, Fiseha Assefaw, as he finished laying bricks at a building site just outside the Marsa center.
While locals earn upward of 20 Maltese lira ($62) for a day’s work on a construction site, Marsa residents said 10 Maltese lira ($31) was the most they received, and that most days they wouldn’t get hired at all.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission has complained about the closed detention centers, which journalists are barred from entering.
The former military barracks house hundreds of people, often from different warring factions in Africa, under military guard with no activities and as little as two hours of outdoor activity a week, according to Neil Falzon, head of the UNHCR's Malta office.
"The conditions are really horrible, shameful … I'm embarrassed to be Maltese and have this situation here," Falzon said.
Red Cross director Sylvia Galea said she assumed that “there’s a fear that if Malta provided better accommodation (for the immigrants) that even more people would come over.”
Maltese authorities, for example discourage media from visiting the Hal Afar Open Center, adjacent to Malta's main airport and home to 500 to 600 immigrant men, women and children.
On a recent rainy night, a group of men sat watching news of Sudan’s Darfur region on an Arabic TV network under one of the tarpaulin tents in the camp. The “restaurant” consisted of one table along with mismatched couches and chairs.
With dogs barking around the edges of the fenced-in field, and the rain hammering down, Ahmed Waddai offered a meal of fried liver, tomatoes, onions, and a separate bowl of fava beans.
The 24-year-old from Chad explained he’d spent a fruitless day looking for work. "Nobody wants to come to this place," he said between bites, referring to Malta.
"It's no better than Chad, but we can't do anything. We can't go forward and we can't go back. We can do nothing,” he said.
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