Rescued from the Med: the migrants’ journey

The LÉ ‘Eithne’ has picked up thousands of refugees from the waters around Malta. Will Europe offer any future to its new boat people?


It takes a little while to find the place in the Addolorata cemetery, Malta’s largest, on a hill above Valletta. Two elderly officials, who are about to lock up for the evening, seem perplexed at first about the request for directions. Keen to help, they offer me a lift to what’s known as the common ground, close to the back gate.

We pass dozens of mausoleums and elaborate family plots as we approach the far boundary, where many small headstones compete haphazardly for space. There’s no headstone dated late April 2015; it’s the three empty candle holders, along with dried-out remnants of flowers and the fresh cement seals on a dozen large paving stones, that provide the clue.

Here, on this small far-southern piece of European territory, lie 24 of more than 850 people who perished in the single worst migrant drowning on the Mediterranean this year. One of them was an infant, buried in a white coffin, named Body No 132.

Even as the interfaith funeral for them took place in Valletta, a Naval Service ship several thousand kilometres north was fuelling for a very different type of patrol. Operation Pontus, as it was called, would take Lieut Cdr Pearse O’Donnell and the crew of the Naval Service flagship, LÉ Eithne, on the service’s first humanitarian mission overseas.

“We had three weeks to get ready . . . but nothing would really prepare you for what we saw,” says Alan Cummins, leading sick-berth attendant on the ship, which berthed in Malta this week after just over six weeks in the Mediterranean.

His ship’s commander was amazed to find Bangladeshis among the 21 nationalities rescued. O’Donnell calculated that by the time they were herded into unseaworthy craft off the Libyan coast they had already travelled 7,000km.


Boat people

“You can talk about figures – lots of them – but every one is a human being,” says Ali Konate, a softly spoken air-conditioning engineer based in Valletta, who was one of those same boat people 13 years ago. Back then, as a 17-year-old, the Malian was among the first north African migrants to arrive in larger numbers from Libya. “There were about 300 on board. I had some peanuts and dates with me, and I had paid $1,100,” he says. “The captain knew the route to Italy, and had been there three times, and had been banned from returning there. We came into the harbour here at about 3am, but no one came near us till eight o’clock. Then it was the police.”


Konate spent 18 months in a detention centre. He was then moved to one of Malta’s “open centres” and found work . He put himself through training courses and secured temporary status, which he must renew every year. He last saw his mother when he left home, at the age of 15. She died seven years ago. The desert transit, via Ivory Coast and Algeria to Libya, was the worst, Konate says. “We would come across these groups of bones, as if people lay down beside each other to die. I would try to bury them in the sand. You can’t change the picture of that in your head.”



Konate had agreed to meet me close to the Floriana district, just beyond Valletta’s city walls. The people of Floriana are also known as Tal-Irish, because of a historical link between Ireland and Malta. Cardinal Michael Logue, then primate of all Ireland, visited the island in 1895, and 10 years later the Floriana football club played a team from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.


When the Maltese won 2-1 the Irish troops presented the victors with their jerseys, and Floriana FC players have worn green and white ever since. The district recently revived a St Patrick’s Day festival, and the island’s population of 425,000 takes a keen interest in “saints and celebrating”, with districts competing for the best firework displays.

It’s not only rich Irish businessmen who have made Malta their home; such is the level of integration that many working in the financial, pharmaceutical and information technology sectors don’t register with the embassy, according to Ambassador Pádraig MacCoscair. Frequent direct flights between Dublin and Valletta mean that there are almost as many visiting Irish as British accents on the streets.

But a rich cultural heritage, as in dozens of Roman Catholic churches, presents a less welcoming environment for new arrivals of other faiths. The island’s mixed bloodlines reflect its many influences, dating back to the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans, but when Charles, the holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, gave the Maltese islands to crusaders in 1530, the new ruling Knights of Malta built a fortress harbour designed to keep out the “infidel”.



Standing on the afterdeck of the LÉ Eithne, also berthed near Tal-Irish, crew members, who have just been congratulated by Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney, describe their experience as surreal. Every craft that helped to rescue migrants was in immediate danger, says Lieut Shane Mulcahy, a search-and-rescue co-ordinator.


Women with severe chemical burns from leaking fuel containers were among the many treated by the four medical staff on board, two of them from the Army.

The ship’s crew had acquired games, colouring books and blankets before they left Haulbowline Island. They had never anticipated that the youngest of the 137 children, out of almost 3,400 rescued in total by the ship’s crew, would be a baby of just two weeks old. And “you’d get a lot of requests to be taken to Ireland”, Cummins says.

The rather intimidating masks and protective suits for the ship’s crew were recommended by the Italian authorities, Lieut Mulcahy says. Migrants were frisked as a precaution, he adds. “But the people we saw directing others on the boats hadn’t been trained. They were just handed the tiller.”

On the ship’s previous rescue, in late June, it picked up almost 650 people. Cummins recalls looking out on deck in the middle of the night. The afterdeck was carpeted, as was the forecastle, with sleeping bodies under emergency blankets. “I’ve done fishery protection, fought fires, I’ve been overseas in Liberia, but I never thought I would see anything like that,” he says.


Sexual violence and rape

Five years ago Joe Sacco, a Malta-born graphic novelist, took events in his homeland as the focus for his journalistic essay Migra tion. At that stage Malta’s tiny armed forces – due to take delivery shortly of the former Naval Service ship LÉ Aoife – was working flat out on migrant rescue.


The government’s decision to assign new arrivals to detention centres for up to 18 months attracted international condemnation. In contrast with Ireland’s forbidding system of direct provision, however, detainees then moved on to “open centres” were allowed to seek work.

“All of the stories these people had to tell were quite horrible,” says Dr Neil Falzon, a former representative in Malta of UNHCR, the United Nations refugee agency. “There were stories of smugglers depriving them of food and water, of sexual violence and rape, of corrupt border officials and imprisonment, and of unquantified deaths in the desert.”

Migration became a hot political issue in Malta, where some among the resident population, sharing just 315sq km of island, felt swamped. But when Italy initiated its Mare Nostrum operation in late 2013, after 366 migrants drowned off the island of Lampedusa, the Italian authorities agreed to take migrants rescued from the Maltese search-and-rescue zone.

“As a result the number arriving here has fallen from some 1,800 people a year to almost nothing in the past two years,” says Falzon, now director of the Aditus Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation that focuses on access to human rights. “So while we have this intense activity at sea around us there is a very tense silence on the island itself, and we are trying to take advantage of this period to ensure there are proper systems in place.”

Aditus believes that the strict border controls being proposed by some EU member states, including Britain and Hungary, are not the solution. “Together with saving lives at sea, we are advocating a system within the EU of safe and legal channels, including humanitarian visas, rather than putting up barriers which will only divert migrants, and their traffickers, to taking other routes,” Falzon says.

He says that the recent EU proposal to relocate 44,000 Mediterranean migrants among member states on a quota basis is a start. “Migration is going to be with us, and the numbers coming to Europe are small in comparison to what is happening in Kenya, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, where states are really struggling to cope.” (Kenya still hosts the world’s largest refugee camp.)

The UN refugee agency’s current representative in Malta, Jon Hoisaeter, agrees with Falzon. UNHCR’s central Mediterranean Sea initiative recommends 12 measures that would ensure EU states share responsibility equally.

Significantly, less than 30 per cent of more than 19,000 people who arrived in Malta by boat between 2002 and 2014 remain, according to the agency. Also, irregular boat arrivals in Greece have been higher over the past fortnight than those in Italy for the first time this year. Many continue their journey north to Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden.

“We fully agree that there has to be registration and screening, with individual assessments and no automatic right to stay, for all who arrive,” Hoisaeter says. “But there has to be a many-faceted response to a complex problem, including identification of special needs and effective access to asylum processes, as well as voluntary return incentives for people who are not in need of protection, such as training, which can be part-funded by the EU.

“Legal alternatives to accessing protection in Europe, including through family reunification – where a settled refugee here is permitted to bring over his or her family, and is already in a position to give them support – is another option we advocate.”

A regular system of family reunification would avoid the sort of horrific situation that Umayma Elamin Amer, founder and president of the Migrant Women’s Association of Malta, has encountered.

Amer says she was able to travel from Sudan to Libya, and then on to Malta, by plane when she decided to find a better home for her two teenage children, a year ago. But she recently met a woman who had come by sea from Libya without her family and who now wants her two children, aged 18 and eight, to make the same journey.

“She knows how dangerous it is for them, she knows she is sending money to traffickers, but she thinks they are safer in a boat than staying where they are,” Amer says.

Amer’s organisation aims to support migrant women from many countries in navigating basic issues on arrival and in coping with a new culture. In spite of incidents of racism that make the national press in Malta, she says she has found it very welcoming. Integration is “not one-way”, she says, as “sometimes it is the migrant who builds barriers around him or her”.



Ali Konate also spends any free time he has working with NGOs, lobbying on migrant issues and contributing to awareness-raising initiatives in the wider community. “People see migrants as a problem, but they don’t see the reason why we are here,” he says.


“So we may not have colonialism, but now we have multinationals in Africa who are there to take resources. We have conflicts everywhere, and no governments.

“In Mali we have rich soil where we can grow our own food if we can just be left alone. Just think of it: no one in Europe has to pay $1,100 to visit my country in a small overcrowded boat by sea.”

Speaking in Malta earlier this week, Simon Coveney acknowledged that although Ireland’s humanitarian response has been successful so far, the EU faces a “big political challenge to try and create conditions in north Africa that can prevent that kind of mass movement of people”.

Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald, who flew to Malta with Coveney, hinted that Ireland might double its offer to take a proportion of the 44,000 Mediterranean migrants that the EU aims to relocate. That doubling amounts to just 600 people, but she pointed out that Ireland’ s direct-provision system is almost full.

Like many of her political colleagues, Fitzgerald is careful to distinguish between asylum seekers and economic migrants.

“But how can you make a distinction?” asks Konate. “Who is not an economic migrant when you have no functioning government and your country is in the middle of civil war?”

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