How Europe’s Migration Crisis is Heating Up the Italy-Malta Relationship This Summer

The recent election of Italy’s new populist government led by the anti-immigration Lega political party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement has added extra heat to the Mediterranean’s already sweltering summer.

Over the past few weeks, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the head of the Lega party, followed through on his election promise of preventing migrants from entering into Italy and shut down the country’s southern ports to charity ships with migrants onboard.

In response to international community’s accusations of foul play, Salvini pointed the finger at Malta, saying that it was the small island state’s responsibility to let the migrants birth on its shores. [Malta, too, prevented rescue ships with migrants on board from docking at its ports.]

Italy’s sudden refusal to accept migrants, along with Malta’s insistence that it is not its duty to take in migrants outside its “search and rescue area” (SAR), risks, once again, putting the two traditionally close allies on a long and precarious collusion course.

An informal agreement between Italy and Malta that was put in place in 2013 by the then center-left prime minister of Italy, Enrico Letta, and that was subsequently continued by successive Socialist Italian governments, dictated that Italy would be responsible for saving migrants in and around its borders, including in Malta’s SAR.

This policy of being the sole country responsible for migrant crossings was also compounded by a mission lead by the European Union’s (EU) border agency Frontex. Launched in 2014, Operation Triton brought all the migrants rescued at sea to Italy and set aside international rules governing migrant disembarkation [International law states that people recused at sea need to be taken to the closest safe harbor.].

Salvini has ostensibly torn up the gentleman’s agreement between Malta and Italy and has vowed that the country “from today, will start to say no to human trafficking. No to the business of illegal immigration.”

An overwhelming 600,000 migrants have reached Italy by boat from Africa in the past five years. While this places an unfair onus on the Italians, Salvini’s comments that “Malta takes in nobody” are plain and simply untrue.

Figures provided by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) illustrate that, while there has been a significant drop in the number of migrants arriving on boats, the number of migrants applying for asylum in Malta has remained relatively stable over the past thirteen years. Since 2003, Malta received 23,443 asylum applications, averaging at around 1,650 per year. Moreover, according to Eurostat, in 2017 Malta had one of the highest number of first-time asylum applications per capita, with the country ranking in fourth place out of the European Union’s twenty-eight members states. These figures put to bed Salvini’s claims that Malta is not pulling its weight when it comes to hosting migrants.

The Italian government has now started to call on Malta to give up the island’s vast SAR. Danilo Toninelli, the Italian infrastructure minister, told a local journalist that Malta should “change the SAR region and we will take it ourselves.” Toninelli’s views represent a repeat of a long-sought-after desire on the part of Italy to take control of the Maltese governed area. Given the size of the area (Malta’s SAR ranges from Tunisia to Greece and covers a surface area of 250,000 kilometers squared) and the international and foreign policy implications of controlling these waters, Malta has and continues to refuse to give up its SAR. In fact, an initial response by the Maltese government to Toninelli’s comments reflected Malta’s unwillingness to entertain the Italian government’s wishes, with the spokesperson replying that Italy’s views represent “a baseless and frivolous attempt to try to impinge on the sovereignty of a neighboring country.”

A recent urgent plenary debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg saw Members of Parliament from across the political spectrum castigate Salvini for taking a “xenophobic and populist” stand. While European parliamentarians are right to call the Italian politician out for his racist rhetoric and behavior, southern European states have for too long shouldered the migration burden. Countless calls by these countries to share the responsibility have fallen on deaf ears, with anti-immigrant governments in Europe, such as Hungary and Poland in the east, outright refusing to play their part.

The only real possibility for the member bloc to effectively tackle the migration problem is if the EU pushes through a complete reform of the Dublin System, the laws that regulate what happens to migrants when they enter the EU. The agreement clinched by EU leaders at their summit in the early hours of June 29, in which member states agreed to voluntarily create closed migrant reception centers in EU countries for the fast processing of asylum applications and explore the possibility of establishing regional disembarkation platforms outside the EU, is only a stop gap measure and far from the sound and comprehensive solution needed to tackle the migration problem. Moreover, the fact that the agreement is of a voluntary nature and the forced quota system of redistributing migrants from frontline member states has been, seemingly, scrapped, increases the likelihood of it flopping and bringing the EU back to square one on migration.

Until the EU adopts a uniform migration policy where all member states are on board, Europe’s migration crisis will continue as is and Malta and Italy will keep on trading barbs over who should respond to the desperate calls of those fleeing a life of war and persecution.

Matthew Lowell is from Malta and has a background in EU public policy. Follow him on Twitter @Mlowell88.

Image: The Open Arms rescue boat run by the Spanish Proactiva Open Arms charity arrived in Barcelona, Spain, on July 4 carrying migrants rescued off the coast of Libya. Italy and Malta, both much closer to the place of rescue, had refused to let the boat dock in their ports. (Reuters/Albert Gea)