The waters of Pretty Bay in Malta are dotted with bobbing tourists and something new: refugee vessels from North Africa. Since joining the European Union in 2003, Malta has attracted the largest illegal immigrant minority in Europe, totaling 8,000 or 2 percent of the population. (The second largest is less than one-tenth of a percent in Italy). Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi says Malta suddenly finds itself “on the very front line” of Europe and Africa, with a “huge” immigration problem.
The European Commission has recognized the “special difficulty” of a crowded island just 200 kilometers from Libya. But twice EU patrols have withdrawn from Maltese waters due to lack of boats or funds. Tensions boiled over this summer when Malta twice defied EU policy by refusing to admit or aid refugee boats, forcing Spain and Italy to come to the rescue. The EU says no nation had ever violated the traditional duty to save lives at sea “in such a manifest way.” Malta says it can’t be the EU holding pen. All is quiet for now, but nothing is resolved on Europe’s hottest immigration front.