by Noel Grima
The momentum behind an EU asylum policy has run out of steam and will possibly impose more stresses on Malta because the policy is at the mercy of the EU member states who have obtained what they want out of it and will not do more.
This was the opinion, expressed yesterday by Martin Watson, a keynote speaker at a half-day conference on Asylum in Malta and the EU held at Dar l-Ewropa, Valletta.
But it was also a sentiment shared by many other speakers at the conference who agreed that the situation is bleak, that the Union for the Mediterranean and the Barcelona Process are dead and that the EU basically wants to push the asylum problem if possible outside the EU frontiers or at the very least to the frontier states, of which Malta is one.
What is called the EU’s asylum policy, Mr Watson said, began in the 1980s when Germany, France, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for their own internal markets decided they needed the free movement of peoples inside the EEC. Thus was born the Schengen Pact in 1985, not out of any humanistic idealism but to enlarge the common market.
What followed were the years of the Balkan conflict which produced a huge wave of asylum seekers who began shopping around for asylum and applying to many countries at the same time. Germany was the country most targeted, followed by Sweden and Belgium, possibly due to their generous assistance.
In typical EU fashion, the member states then decided to harmonise the processes and thus there was the Dublin Treaty, followed by the London resolution and the Amsterdam Treaty which harmonized the way the seekers were received, the procedure to be followed and the qualification of those to be accepted.
Despite all intentions, this attempt at bringing uniformity was not a complete success and a redrafting is underway aiming to be an EU directive by 2012. But Mr Watson, who later met Minister Tonio Borg, said Malta will be placed under even more stress if the present draft is accepted since the draft places even more obligations on countries like Malta.
But he doubts whether the draft will be accepted by the other Member States since most of them have already obtained what they wanted out of the Dublin regulation.
However, there is another EU initiative which according to him may be more to Malta’s liking: this is the Stockholm Programme, launched last December. Even so, Mr Watson added, in 82 pages only four pages are dedicated to principles of asylum and all they speak of are terms like migration management, bringing a regulation of ‘spontaneous’ migration, external processing, resettlement, etc. In other words, this programme aims to manage and control the processing of asylum seekers and, if possible do so away from the EU borders. It offers money to non-member states, such as Tanzania, to create camps where the refugee and asylum seekers are processed. Frontex is also mentioned as a means to push asylum seekers back.
Malta has been offered the European Asylum Support Office but Mr Watson evidently considers this to be somewhat of a poisoned chalice: it seems intentioned to help Malta fulfill its obligations.
The situation is bleak, however, one important effect of the Lisbon Treaty is that now anyone can take an asylum case to the European Court of Justice and the ECJ decision is mandatory.
In Mr Watson’s opinion, Malta must negotiate hard regarding the Stockholm Programme so as to avoid being burdened with obligations it cannot shoulder.
At the end of the conference, Mr Watson’s opinion was supported by Professor Erwan Lannon who highlighted the inherent contradictions in the way the EU treats asylum seekers.
The EuroMed process should have led, by 2010, to a free trade area without the free movement of workers. With elections just past or coming up in the UK and France, asylum and immigration issues are in everybody’s minds but they do not surface unless when Gordon Brown called a woman who was concerned about intra-European migration a ‘bigotted woman’. There is also the treatment of Roma in Hungary..
The member states have shown they were not equal to the challenge, even if countries such as Luxembourg have shown they are capable of integrating first time immigrants. 60% of immigrant flows come from five or six countries only but EU accession has brought immigrant flows to the newly-accessed countries, such as Malta.
The more doors are closed, the more immigrants find a way of opening them. The EU policies have not produced the expected results except cut down the flow of people from the Baltic states to Poland. In Italy, immigrant flows grew 30 times between 1997 and 2007.
The Mediterranean is a special case to consider: there are 90 million immigrants in the EU of which 5.7 million are from the Mediterranean Maghreb countries and Turkey. 90% of Turkish emigrants are in Germany and 95% of Algerian emigrants are in France.
The EU’s externalization programme seeks to export the problem, creating buffer zones between Africa and the EU although the idea of setting up camps in the middle of the Sahara Desert did not work.
Prof. Lannon agreed that the thrust of EU policy in this regard put added stress on the Mediterranean neighbouring states and also on states like Malta, just inside the EU borders.
There was not a single asylum seeker or coloured person in the audience. This was pointed out by one of the speakers from Malta who brought to the fore the real situation in Malta.
Maria Pisani focused on ‘The Case of Rejected Female Asylum Seekers in Malta’ and gave real-life examples from the plight of women from Sub-Saharan countries who ended up in Malta.
Of the 13,130 asylum seekers who came to Malta since 2002, 9000 had their refugee application rejected and 11,000 were given subsidiary protection while only 600 were accepted as refugees. Only 13% of the Nigerians who came to Malta were women and only two were given subsidiary protection.
There is a lack of gender guidelines in the determining of refugee application process but women face the greatest problems: they are less likely to be eligible according to the existing criteria.
Where women are involved, success in life depends where one is born, hence pure chance.
Ms Pisani ended her speech with a ringing appeal to academics to give these people a voice so that their plight can be heard.
Daniela Debono tracked the way Malta was portrayed in human rights analyses over the years. She found that before 2002, when immigrant flux started in earnest, Malta was in the good books of such ratings with the faults identified being in the domestic violence issues with the government intending to do something about it. But after the arrival of so many asylum seekers, Malta began to be looked at both on the international media and also in the international ratings as the country which placed asylum seekers under arbitrary detention and then in inhuman conditions. Even today, the approach to asylum seekers is mainly charitable rather than a human rights one: Malta lacks a cosmopolitan approach to life.
Dr Alison Gatt said that asylum seekers who arrived in Malta in 2008 amounted to 2,700, or 6.4 per every 1,000 residents, an all-high percentage. And had Malta signed an amendment to the Frontex rules in 2004, and taken in all who were rescued in the Search & Rescue area, this would have meant that Malta would have had to take in some 30,000.
In the short discussion at the end, it was pointed out that beside people of a black colour mainly from Sub-Sahara, there are other immigrants in Malta who do not get noticed because their colour is white and they would be mainly people who have overstayed their visit.
The conference was organized by the Department of European & Comparative Law at the Faculty of Laws and MESA with the support of the European Commission. It was animated by Professor Peter Xuereb.