Malta, the EU and the refugees – G. Torchio

Starting from the second half of the 19th century, through the 20th century, Europe has been characterized by a migratory trend which has strongly increased after political turmoil and disorders in the Middle East have erupted. Currently, however, it is the countries at the Southern borders of the European Union, such as Italy, Cyprus, and Malta, that are, predictably, facing the greatest challenges.

Moreover, as if the situation was already not tragic enough, the turmoil increased noticeably after the decision of the European Union to terminate the Search and Rescue Operation “Mare Nostrum,” also known as SAR, in favor of a smaller, less costly one, namely Frontex’s “Operation Triton.” As a consequence of the decrease in funds, the number of deaths has increased 27 times and countries are, now more than ever, unprepared in facing the ongoing migratory crisis.

The European Union, on its part, has issued regulations to manage the responsibilities of all the member countries in dealing with the crisis. Among these, the most important treaties are the Dublin Regulations (Regulation No. 604/2013), The Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union (the former Treaty of Rome), and The Common European Asylum System (CEAS).

The first one in particular, signed in 2013 and revised in 2015, has consistently been at the center of debates as it establishes a system to track all those who unauthorizedly cross the borders of the Union and, more importantly, determines the member State responsible for the reception of migrants upon their arrival.

So the real question is: how has Malta, one of the countries who have, for geographical reasons, been at the center of this migratory crisis, been complying with the EU regulations?

First, it is important to point out how Malta is among the latest members to have joined the European Union, officially becoming part of it in May 2004. It joined however the Schengen Area and the Euro Area only respectively in 2007 and 2008. Although becoming a member state has benefitted Malta, which has seen its GDP increase relevantly following 2004, it has also meant that the country was forced to revisit its “Immigration Act” (1970) to comply with the standards set forth by the EU. This has resulted in the ratification of the “Refugees Act” (2001), the “Return Regulations” (2011), and the forming of a “Strategy for the Reception of Asylum Seekers and Irregular Migrants” (2015). Thanks to such measures, Malta legislated the grounds on which migrants could be returned, regulated that it is lawful to detain an individual only in the case that there are explicit grounds and for a limited amount of time (12 months), and also established an Initial Reception Centre to deal with the arrivals.

This, hence, sparks a second question: has this reform of the legislation been enough to decree that the Maltese government has shown (and is currently showing) compliant with the EU legislation?

There is no such thing as a clear-cut answer. That said, in the last decade, the cases of non-compliance have been more frequent than the stances in which the government of the island has operated following EU standards.

In 2016, for example, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg has ruled that Malta has breached Art. 3 on the deployment of degrading treatment, and Art. 5 on arbitrary and unlawful detention, in the case of Abdullahi Elmi and Ameys Abubakar v. Malta (2012). The ECHR has also found the country guilty of violating the right to liberty of an individual in the case of Massoud v. Malta. The first case, in the specific, has been at the center of debate for some time, as it dealt with the unlawful detention of two minor and unaccompanied migrants.

Additionally, in 2013, the ECHR has also ruled the complete inadequacy of the Maltese reception centers as a consequence of a female refugee, Aden Ahmed, who suffered a miscarriage and further health complications after being held at the barracks. Consequently, after several inspections of the field, the UN Working group on Arbitrary Detention (WAGD) in 2015 has raised further concerns to the Maltese government regarding the conditions of the centers, quickly followed by the European Convention on the Prevention of Torture, which also emphasized the complete absence of translators to assist migrants.

Lastly, the perhaps more well-known cases of non-compliance with EU regulation are the several refusals of the government led by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat to grant access to a safe port to NGO’s vessels carrying migrants rescued at sea, some of whom in urgent need of medical assistance. The most striking and recent cases being the “Aquarius” ship, operated jointly by “Doctors Without Borders” and “SOS Méditerranée,” the “Alan Kurdi,” and a vessel operated by the NGO Open Arms.

In conclusion, although Malta has come a long way since 2004, the sole reform of the country’s legislation, if then not enforced, has proven to not be sufficient to show alignment with the values and the strategies of the European Union to face the migratory crisis. The island, similarly to Italy, needs to take concrete steps forward, renovating also the structures and the arrival procedures, hence ensuring a speedy and safe reception of migrants that sees no illegal detention and discrimination.

A former visiting student at SLU-Madrid, Giulia Torchio is an International Relations and Global Politics student at the American University of Rome and an assistant to the International Relations department.

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To quote this article, please use the following reference: G. Torchio (2020). “Malta, the EU and the refugees ”, Observatory on contemporary crises, March 27, 2020, URL: