Malta only ‘full up’ for asylum seekers, according to PM

Prime Minster Robert Abela tapping on table budget 2021
Miguela Xuereb

Prime Minister Robert Abela emphasised that he made a clear distinction between asylum seekers and migrant workers when he argued that Malta was filled to capacity, insisting that the former – but not the latter – were an issue.

Abela delivered a ministerial statement in the wake of a European Council meeting that took place last week to discuss, among other matters, Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and foreign relations, including with Africa.

The PM emphasised that in its dealings with African countries, the EU could not simply insist on cooperation in the sectors it was most interested in, such as migration: Europe should commit to developing stronger ties in all sectors and work as equal partners. But he nevertheless made clear that migration was a primary concern.

In his response, Opposition Leader Bernard Grech – who has called for a national conference on migration and population – highlighted that the EU’s approach to Africa was evolving from one focused solely on migration, and the issue was also touched upon by a number of PN MPs, with Hermann Schiavone highlighting Pope Francis’ condemnation of the abuse of migrants in Libya. On his part, Labour MP Jean Claude Micallef questioned whether Abela agreed with Grech’s apparent belief that Malta was not full up.

As he addressed MPs’ queries, Abela said that Malta could not continue to carry the burden of migration, but insisted that unlike Grech, he distinguished between “those who are here working legally and paying taxes and those who migrate irregularly.”

Asylum seekers are also entitled to access the labour market, with Malta issuing short-term employment licences to those with pending asylum applications, and would presumably pay taxes as they worked.

The PM also pointed out that during talks, Libya would urge Malta not to see it simply as a solution to the migration issue, and said that the government had been a catalyst in bringing about a change in attitude towards Africa.

PM insists Malta prepared for all Brexit scenarios

Abela observed that there were three potential scenarios concerning Brexit: that the EU reaches an agreement with the UK before the transitional agreement runs out at the end of the year; that it fails to do so in time but nevertheless achieves significant progress, or that no notable progress is achieved.

He said that it was difficult to predict what scenario will materialise, though the Nationalist Party’s foreign affairs spokesman Carm Mifsud Bonnici suggested that the most pessimistic scenario appeared to be the most likely one.

Grech questioned what would be done to turn Brexit into an opportunity, and suggested that the government was failing to prepare for it. He compared the situation to the implementation of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, observing that Malta had two years to prepare only for the government to “wake up” in the last minute.

But Abela, who insisted that Brexit should not be used “to create uncertainty,” insisted that Malta was prepared for every possible scenario, and said that no concrete measures were yet in place because none of the scenarios had yet materialised. But he noted that among other dealings, the government was in constant contact with the Malta Chamber of Commerce on the matter.

The PM also observed that Malta was opposed to dealing with the UK in a confrontational matter, contrasting Malta’s position to that of other member states who wanted to “bring the UK to its knees.” Such an approach, he said, would hinder more than it helped.

Abela also said that in any case, he expected that an agreement would eventually materialise.