The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, met Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on Monday morning during his first official visit to Malta.
The High Commissioner expressed his admiration for Malta’s search and rescue efforts, and in particular to the Armed Forces of Malta for saving the lives of thousands of people, at times in very dramatic situations. It is estimated that more than 2,500 asylum seekers have perished or gone missing trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea only in 2014.
During Monday’s meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, Mr Guterres said that given Malta’s size, capacity and location it should be considered as a “special case” in responding to mix migration challenges – it cannot be compared with the situation of larger EU Member States. He appealed for a sustained effort by all states to seek agreement on an enhanced mechanism of European solidarity, which should go hand in hand with implementation of state responsibilities.
On Sunday, UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie, joined Mr. Guterres at Luqa to learn first hand about the activities of the Operations Centre of the Armed Forces of Malta. During their visit three survivors of a shipwreck near Crete arrived to Malta by helicopter. It is feared that hundreds died in the same tragedy, which may have been the result of a fatal attack carried out by smugglers.
Ms. Jolie also had a chance to meet with several survivors of the vessel that capsized south on Malta in October 2013; all sharing harrowing accounts about the loss of children and family members, some of whom were never found.
Later that day, the High Commissioner and the Special Envoy boarded a vessel from the Armed Forces to observe a rescue at sea training exercise.
Following the visits, Ms. Jolie spoke about the importance of giving priority to rescue at sea: “Malta has reason to be proud of the many life-saving interventions that have been made through the years in the central Mediterranean. The Italian Mare Nostrum operation has for the time being reduced the number of arrivals in this country, but with an unpredictable situation in Libya, as well as conflict and crisis spiralling out of control on the doorstep of Europe, Malta’s rescue capacities will no doubt remain a crucial part of operations in the central Mediterranean for some time to come.”
Before his departure from Malta on Monday afternoon, Mr Guterres visited the Hal Far Hangar Open Centre and Safi Detention Centre, accompanied by senior officials from the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security. He urged Malta to review its detention system and reiterated UNHCR’s offer to support further development of alternatives to detention. At the same time, the High Commissioner acknowledged that Malta has taken an important step forward by declaring that children should not be detained and that actions are being taken towards achieving this goal.
The meeting with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was followed by meetings with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, George Vella and the Minister for Consumer Affairs, Civil Liberties and Social Dialogue, Helena Dalli. Among the topics discussed were opportunities and challenges in promoting integration, issues relating to statelessness, as well as the multiplicity of conflicts currently having an impact also in the Mediterranean region.
During his visit the High Commissioner also had a meeting with NGOs working on asylum and migration issues in Malta.
The High Commissioner also accepted an invitation to meet with Simon Busuttil, Leader of the Opposition and the Nationalist Party.