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Tiny island nation says Mediterranean is becoming a ‘cemetery’ of immigrants

October 24th, 2013
02:37 PM ET

By Mick Krever, CNN

“We are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.”

That’s the stark warning from the prime minister of the tiny island nation of Malta, Joseph Muscat, whose country is a key transit point in the perilous journey for immigrants from North Africa to Europe.

“Europe is not taking decisive action to help us front-liners – ourselves, Italy, Greece – save more lives,” Muscat told CNN’s Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Two weeks ago, 350 people died off the Italian island of Lampedusa, another major transit point.

And now Malta, which sits in between Lampedusa and Sicily, has become a destination for those fleeing Syria’s bloody civil war.

Over the past two decades, 20 thousand people have died trying to make the journey from North Africa to Europe.

Muscat is calling on Europeans to show more solidarity with countries on the “front line” – just as his country, he said, showed solidarity with the rest of Europe during the financial crisis.

“We're not exactly a military superpower,” Muscat told Gorani. “It is quite exceptional that it is up to us and a couple of other countries to see through and rescue hundreds of people per year – hundreds of desperate people fleeing first from Somalia, Eritrea, now even Syria.”

Malta is the smallest member of the European Union.

“I wouldn't want to believe that for Europe, money is more important than people.”

Malta itself, however, has come under fire from the U.N. and human rights groups for its detention of immigrants, and the European Council of Human Rights has issued three judgements against the country.

“You know, no one comes with a passport or with an identity card or a driving license,” Muscat said. “So unless there is a detention period, it is impossible for us to make sure that amongst those genuine people who are fleeing from war, there isn't some threat to security.”

There is no real alternative to detention if Malta, a European Union member, is to pick out potential threats.

“When it comes to conditions, yes, we have to improve, we have to do more,” he told Gorani. “But we're being left alone.”

Many immigrants come to Europe fleeing conflict in their homelands. In Libya, which has been without a functioning government since the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, has been rife with chaos.

Muscat said that countries like Libya must play a role in a solution, not just be seen as part of the problem.

“I was in Libya just ten days ago, just after the prime minister was kidnapped; I had a long chat with him,” Muscat said. “There needs to be a better interface between Europe – the rest of the world, really – and this country, not to let it become a failed state.”

Muscat spoke to Gorani from Brussels, where he was attended an E.U. summit.

The topic attracting the most buzz at that meeting was not the immigration crisis, but rather German allegations that the U.S. had spied on Chancellor Angela’s Merkel’s personal mobile phone.

(White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday that the U.S. “is not monitoring and will not monitor” her communications.)

“I do believe that we are essentially two sides of the same coin,” Muscat said of Europe and America. “But – that's a huge but – allies and friends don't snoop on each other.”

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soundoff (36 Responses)
  1. Hiam Bohsali

    The countries that should employ those Syrians dying, should be the Arab countries, not europe

    October 24, 2013 at 5:07 pm | Reply
    • kme

      Agreed. You can see where the super rich Mid East countries hearts are. They could easily help with the enormous reserves of oil money that they have and they dont.

      October 27, 2013 at 11:50 am | Reply
    • jimmy atanasio

      i agree with you whole heartedly.something needs to be done by the people and the rest of the world.if life is so unbareable to live within your own country then it is high time that the goverment of that so called country be removed or destroyed.the so called army of that country needs to wake up and see that their bosses are wrong to do what they do and revolt against them.that being said go back and do something about it is your country after all

      October 29, 2013 at 9:02 am | Reply
  2. May

    Malta cannot handle more influx of immigrants as it already has limited space for its own people let alone for others. It happens to be one of the densest populated countries in the world where around 1300 people live per kilometre squared! Europe should try and help this small nation as it is being drowned down without any life boats to help it!

    October 24, 2013 at 5:39 pm | Reply
  3. Gaetana Hoare

    Us as Maltese have had enough of the illegal immigrant in this tiny space .I agree that we have to help these people like we have been doing for these 100 years but These days we are realizing that these people are more opportunist then they are needy they are not happy living in Africa so they come to Malta taking jobs from us Maltese collecting food and money from churches collecting money from Europe Funds and we have no rights and in return we are called racist because we want to defend our country . Europe is being too soft on these people and a lot of us thing we are being taken for a ride .

    October 24, 2013 at 6:39 pm | Reply
  4. Oriana

    Is this prime minister serious? Does he know the meaning of hypocrite? Was he not the one who attempted to push back asylum seekers to Libya before the European Court of Human Rights intervened and put an end to his attempted pushback?

    October 24, 2013 at 7:53 pm | Reply
    • Jonathan

      People who opportunistically do not defend their nation are the real hypocrites. The Malta Prime Minister is defending his country's interests and all Maltese should be united on this matter.

      October 25, 2013 at 3:48 am | Reply
      • Sentinel

        very well said Jonathan. What Dr.Muscat is doing should have been done before tragedies happen. Burden sharing and other fantasies were promised but nothing was achieved.

        October 25, 2013 at 5:43 am |
      • Oriana

        A government which has its country at heart does not sell its country's citizenship for a few bucks. It is all wrong for the country. It is a shame for this tiny island nation if its citizens will allow this.

        October 25, 2013 at 11:04 am |
      • Simon Borg

        @ Oriana
        Well, €650,000 injected into our economy for every citizenship granted cannot be called “a few bucks”. In fact, it’s more money than many people I know on the Island will earn in a lifetime. Since you seem to know so much about monetary affairs, do kindly illuminate us on what new avenues we need to exploit to finance the deficit of 72 million Euros we have in our free healthcare and how will we pay back the 300 million Euros bill spent for our new Mater Dei Hospital? Oh and by the way, it’s the previous administration, that you seem to admire so much, that is on record for having flown back, in the middle of the night, an aircraft full of refugees to the country they fled from. Many of them did not last long back on their home turf.

        October 25, 2013 at 4:37 pm |
    • Anna

      Dr. Muscat's THREAT of a pushback was just that.. a threat, which served it's purpose and finally and seriously put the illegal immigration situation on the European agenda and received the international attention this humanitarian situation deserves.

      October 25, 2013 at 6:17 am | Reply
    • Paul Gatt

      Oriana ,, you are wrong on that,,he asked for EU's help to interven but they did not ,then he talked about pushback which he has all the right to do so,i think you would do the same [ use fire arm ] if someone enters your house and call police and they don't show up??? I would, with pleasure ,,,BELBULI

      October 25, 2013 at 6:53 am | Reply
    • Frankie

      Dr. Muscat's THREAT of a pushback was just that.. a threat, which served it's purpose and finally and seriously put the illegal immigration situation on the European agenda and received the international attention this humanitarian situation deserves.

      April 21, 2015 at 5:30 am | Reply
  5. Samuel

    What a hypocrite! The journalist should have asked the PM about his links to extreme right wing elements in Malta and his promise to these racists during the election campaign to let the refugees drown if necessary. He got element on strong racist and xenophobic elements. This is one of the most xenophobic and cynical PMs that Malta ever had.

    October 24, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Reply
    • Oriana

      EU is of course well informed.

      October 24, 2013 at 10:58 pm | Reply
    • charlie

      You know why you're calling our PM a hypocrite because he is not a yes man to all that the EU says as the previous pm was. for joseph muscat malta comes first and foremost.its time for real actions not just words and and big smiles for photographs as unfortunetely we were used to up to last march

      October 25, 2013 at 6:24 am | Reply
    • Simon Borg

      If it’s a “xenophobic and cynical” Maltese PM that is needed to get the rest of the EU to make some realistic contribution to this problem, then let it be so. It takes courage to stand up and be counted on the international fora. Don’t forget that your beloved former Maltese PM will go on record as being the last EU Head of State who shook Gaddafi’s blood soaked hands. And not even that made it on CNN as did JM’s stand last night. Enjoy.

      October 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  6. ray

    These people come illegally and then wonder why they are not wanted. All of the other nations in Africa why do they come to Europe? If you want to immigrate, do it legally or go somewhere else!

    October 25, 2013 at 12:13 am | Reply
  7. Philip Mamo

    I fully agree with our prime minister how he is tackling the problem regarding illegal immigration. Unfortunately from Europe we are not getting any help regarding this issue despite we form part of the EU Block. A number of European Leaders coming from the northern sphere of Europe simply speak of Solidarity but do not raise a finger to help our nation facing such a great problem. I believe that one of the solutions is to send these unfortunate people to Brussels and see how Baroso will then tackle the problem then!!!!

    October 25, 2013 at 1:34 am | Reply
  8. Paul Gatt

    YES JOSEPH,tell them Europeans how many times for centuries they invaded Malta and robbed us blind and used us as slaves becouse we were part of Africa then,now they want us to do their dirty work becouse we are in the EU,after all we are only 2 shades darker then them,,BELBULI

    October 25, 2013 at 7:06 am | Reply
  9. Jessica A.

    Malta should send these immigrants back. I live in the U.S and we deal with the same issues. The U.S sends the illegal immigrants back because they cost the country money. Malta is a small country and can't deal with these people who flee from Libya and other countries. I was in Malta this summer and I was a little disappointed. I saw a number of non-Maltese citizens walking around Malta with the same rights as a Maltese, but yet they have the nerve to call me a tourist. Even though I was born in America, my parents were born and raised in Malta, I have family in Malta and I speak the language, however I am a "tourist". I think Malta should get their priorities straight and recognize that the Maltese living abroad should come before these immigrants. Illegal immigrants are trouble for any country!

    October 25, 2013 at 10:33 am | Reply
    • Greg

      If these non-Maltese are citizens as you wrote, then they should have the same rights as natural born Maltese.

      October 28, 2013 at 6:14 pm | Reply
  10. Michelle

    While it is true that many illegal immigrants are fleeing strife in their countries, is there not a possibility that some may be fleeing justice? The detention policy is right for Malta and must continue at all costs, regardless of 'rulings' from human rights groups. Have the Maltese people not got the right to protect the security of their country? The vast majority of the thousands of illegal immigrants who have come to this tiny country in the past 10 years are young men from sub-Saharan Africa. They pay large sums of money to criminals to get them on rickety boats to make the crossing. The soldiers of the Armed Forces of Malta risk their lives to go out in all weathers to rescue these people from the sea when their dinghies inevitably begin to sink. When they arrive they are given food, shelter, free medical treatment on the Maltese NHS, clothes, mobile phones, and spending money. These are the facts that are never mentioned in these reports on this massive problem which Malta has been dealing with on it's own for over ten years now.

    October 25, 2013 at 4:38 pm | Reply
  11. Rene Savona Ventura

    How many more people have to die before action is taken? a quote from one of our Prime Minister Joseph Muscat speeches. Europe SHOUD treat this issue with immediate effect to remedy this humanitarian situation.

    October 26, 2013 at 1:34 am | Reply
  12. Michelle

    The solution to ending this human tragedy would be for the United Nations to set up offices in Libya to process asylum claims there. That way people wouldn't have to risk their lives by paying ruthless criminals to try to get into Europe. Over the past years we have seen a pattern which makes it obvious that these crossings are planned by organised gangs. The boats are packed full of young men but there is almost always at least one heavily pregnant woman on board. These women are put there as a form of 'insurance', so that the boats cannot be turned back when they try to enter European waters illegally. Why don't the human rights groups, who are always so quick to condemn Malta's detention policy, put pressure on European leaders to target the human traffickers who organise these crossings? Is it possible that with the technology available today these people cannot be traced? It is they who are responsible for so many thousands of deaths at sea.

    October 26, 2013 at 3:18 am | Reply
  13. Oriana

    The greatest threat to Malta’s comfortable survival right now is not African refugees but the plans of your government. Muscat and his government have the power to cause maximum damage in a way that no number of refugees ever can, if they do proceed with selling citizenship in the way they plan to. I don't fathom how you, maltese citizens have a very short sighted vision in this case. It is a tiny island nation that belongs to you and your future generations. Do not give it up.

    October 26, 2013 at 9:19 pm | Reply
    • Michelle

      I agree with your comment about the selling of Maltese citizenship. I am 100% against this proposal, and so are a large number of Maltese people. However, never underestimate the threat that this uncontrolled, endless influx of illegal immigrants is posing to this tiny country. 100 immigrants arriving in Malta is the equivalent of 1 million arriving in the UK! In July this year we had well over 1000 arrivals...imagine the problems faced by the authorities who had to cope with such an influx. The worst thing about it is when illegal immigrants arrive in Lampedusa or Sicily, they are transferred to mainland Italy, when they arrive in Greece, they are put on one of the hundreds of Greek islands, but here in Malta we have nowhere to send them and the country is one of the smallest and most densely populated countries in the world. This is what the European Union leaders fail to acknowledge. They demand that we take in an unlimited number of immigrants, yet refuse to allow them to be transferred to mainland Europe for their claims for asylum to be processed!! It is an impossible situation for Malta.

      October 28, 2013 at 2:47 am | Reply
  14. Thomas Verseti

    I live in Malta and have for the last 5 years, and I have to say that even though the "immigrants" are a noticable presence now, they really do not seem to be causing any problems at least not where I live, however, I do hear a lot of Maltease people complaining that the work for half as much as the Maltease, and do take jobs. What they get paid amounts to slave labor which cannot be good for native populaton. To be honest there is only one way to solve this problem and as cold and heartless as it sounds, the only solution is to send back ever single boat, as soon as they arrive, fly them back to the origin of the boat as best as can be determined no exceptions. This would cause the entire "people smuggling" industry to collapse, as well as end the practice of people willing to risk their lives to come, word would get around very quickly that it is not worth the risk, as there is nothing to gain other than a plane trip back. There is not other solution that will work.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:07 am | Reply
    • Michelle

      The Maltese government has tried on various occasions to do what you propose, Thomas, but each time it has been blocked by the UN, the European Court of Human rights and all the human rights groups involved in this issue. We have been called all sorts of unsavoury names, including racist and xenophobic, for trying to protect our country and solve this problem. Australia has come out and declared that it will not accept any more illegal immigrants, the UK has it's police go round the streets in vans warning illegal immigrants that if they don't leave they will be arrested and deported and that's alright it would seem , but if Malta tries to do anything to stop the influx of illegal immigrants, it is immediately blocked from doing anything to defend it's borders.

      October 29, 2013 at 2:28 am | Reply
  15. Arnelio Mallari

    Illegal immigrants are still human beings that need to be cared. We are very fortunate that we are the one receiving them. What if the case is vice versa? The Maltese PM is right, because it is his country that receives these lost immigrants and he needs to put peace and order. If he thinks this is too much and already a burden for his country, then he should ask the help of the UN. It is everybody's concern. Not just only for Maltese! If the UN cannot help, so why Maltese do?

    October 29, 2013 at 10:09 pm | Reply
  16. Edward Camilleri

    At last Europe is recognizing that this issue of the illegal immigrants is so serious that needs to be address. Although all EU countries have this problem, Malta is small and without huge resources so or we receive help otherwise there is no other solution they continue to die at sea.

    October 31, 2013 at 4:23 pm | Reply
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