Friday, 21 November 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 8

Palermo (Italy) - Malta (Malta)

“Where’s Malta?” asked several of the teams on The Amazing Race 25 when they got the clues directing them to the island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. One team speculated that Malta might be in Spain, Italy, or Greece before they got around to considering that, “Maybe Malta’s its own country.”

Malta is actually the name of an independent country — formerly a British colony and major naval base — as well as the name of its largest island. The racers’ ignorance is understandable, however, since Malta is small and not a major destination for foreign tourists.

Most of the travellers I sent to Malta during my career as a travel agent only went there because the cheapest tickets between other places were on Air Malta and allowed — or required, due to less than daily schedules on many routes — a free stopover on the island. “Low-fare” airlines have driven down prices on many routes within Europe, but Air Malta used to be one of the few airlines that offered cheap one-way consolidator tickets across the Mediterranean, such as between Europe and North Africa and between Iberia and Greece ot Turkey. For a small airline, Air Malta (airline code “KM”, as in “Knights of Malta”) also serves a surprisingly large number of airports, including many “provincial” and secondary cities.

For what it’s worth, most of these travellers who reported back to me said that Malta was interesting, distinctive, and worth a short stopover if you are passing through, although expensive even by European standards and probably not worth going too far out of your way to visit unless you have some special interest or motivation.

Malta is the smallest member state of the European Union, in both in area and population. It’s a crowded cluster of little islands: Luxembourg has only slightly more people than Malta, but almost ten times the land area.

Malta is also distinguished by having the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers per capita of any EU member or other First World (i.e comparably wealthy) country. Of fewer than half a million residents of Malta, almost a thousand are seeking asylum and almost ten thousand more are other refugees. Most of these are “boat people” who arrived from or via Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean.

A small cluster of crowded rocks in the middle of the sea isn’t an attractive goal for any but the most desperate refugees. Malta’s refugee and asylum seeker crisis only began after Malta joined the EU in 2004 and the Schengen Area at the end of 2007.

A citizen of any EU member state has the right to live and work anywhere in the EU, and all controls on travel across borders within the Schengen Area have been abolished. That’s why many people in other countries around the world who can claim citizenship in EU member states by ancestry or otherwise are now acquiring passports of countries they never intend to live in, as de facto lifetime pan-EU residence and work permits, with the right to pass that citizenship status and its privileges on to one’s children.

But the EU and Schengen treaties are accompanied by the EU’s so-called Dublin Regulations, which assign responsibility for adjudicating asylum claims to whichever EU member country a refugee first arrives in.

Even if an asylum seeker makes it onto a plane or ferry onward from Malta to the European continent, any other EU country in which they are found can send them back to Malta.

The burdens of these rules on both countries of arrival and the refugees themselves are felt in all the EU members closest by land or sea to poorer countries to the east and south. The largest numbers of refugees and asylum seekers subject to these rules arrive in the EU via Greece. But Malta’s small size as well as its location make the refugee problems there proportionately much worse.

Like the USA, but unlike most other EU countries, Malta tries to discourage refugees and asylum seekers by detaining most of them, typically for a year or more, while their claims are being processed. But most refugees who arrive in Malta (unlike people who seek asylum in the USA, most of whom are eventually deported) eventually obtain some sort of legal status and move on from Malta to other European countries.

While the implications of EU asylum processing rules on the Maltese refugee crisis have been widely discussed, the significance of another group of regulations and practices has been almost entirely overlooked.

Why, we need to ask, are migrants arriving at Malta by boat in the first place?

Not because it is cheaper, or because they couldn’t afford to fly. Human traffickers charge more than the price of tickets on low-fare airlines to smuggle refugees and asylum seekers across the Mediterranean in overcrowded and often unseaworthy small boats.

And not because they are not legally entitled to travel to, enter, or remain in the EU. An asylum claim can only be made or adjudicated after an asylum seeker arrives in a country of refuge. But most of those who make it to Malta eventually have their claims upheld, and are officially determined to be entitled to remain. In other words, they are legal travellers and legal entrants, even though the legality of their entry can only be determined after the fact.

The reason refugees are taking to the sea, where many of them die en route (like those who die in the desert trying to enter the USA from Mexico), is that airlines — in flagrant violation of their obligations under international aviation and human rights treaties — refuse to transport them.

Airlines simply will not sell you a ticket or allow you to board a flight to another country if you don’t have a visa or other advance permission (such as citizenship of a country that is allowed visa-free entry to your destination), but say you intend to apply for asylum at your destination.

Governments fail to enforce the obligations of common carriers to transport such passengers.

And of course most asylum seekers — people who, by definition, are suffering from or have a justified fear of persecution — have little or no realistic access to judicial redress.

The right to travel may seem abstract, and of less significance than rights that are more obviously matters of life and death. This is a case where the deaths of “boat people” at sea — legitimate refugees fleeing real persecution, who are entitled to asylum if they can reach a country of refuge — are directly attributable to violations of the right to travel by airlines, and the acquiescence in (or encouragement of) those violations by national governments.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 21 November 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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