Anonymous in the Mediterranean

Babelmed | 31/03/2005

While people in desperate search of a present, and perhaps a future, continue to die a horrifying, anonymous death in the waters of the Mediterranean, Malta has found itself embroiled in a rather unusual high profile clash with its neighbour Italy over the deaths at sea of nine Chinese and Mongolian nationals, who were forcibly abandoned in rough seas 15 nautical miles off Punta Secca, in Ragusa, Sicily, by two hooded Maltese migrant traffickers, one of whom was carrying a submachine gun, early on Thursday morning, 24 March, 2005. Apparently, each of the 15 migrants had paid what must have been a fortune for them for the trip, between $1,000 and 2,100 euros.[i]

Domenico Platania, the chief investigator from the Office of the Attorney in Modica in Sicily, has accused the Maltese of not collaborating with investigations into these brutal deaths. Platania told the national newspaper La Sicilia that this is not the first time that Malta is not helping the investigators. He said that on a number of occasions his office identified those responsible for human trafficking but failed to obtain their extradition from Malta. “The problem,” he said, “is not judiciary, but political, because Malta has become a fundamental link for illegal migration towards Italy.”[ii]

The Maltese government has delivered a formal protest, or “note verbale,” to the Italian ambassador in Malta, Alvise Memmo, to deny accusations made by Italian authorities and to demand that Domenico Platania take back his words, considered “gratuitous” and “unfounded” by the Maltese government, about Malta’s alleged lack of collaboration.[iii] La Sicilia has established that there has certainly been some useful collaboration in the recent past in terms of identifying criminals that have been tried and found guilty.[iv] The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has strongly denied that there are any pending requests from Italy to extradite people in connection with human trafficking and has asked the Italian authorities to specify when the Maltese are supposed to have failed to cooperate with them. According to Il Manifesto Malta is ready to take back three Colombians and a Chinese national who were in Malta before they tried to enter Sicily as clandestine immigrants.[v]

Huge Network of Exploitation and Abuse

But the tragic death of the migrants and the Italian reaction has set many balls rolling. MaltaRightNow.com reports that the police are homing in on the Maltese men involved in this heinous act, perhaps two brothers from the village of Naxxar who have recently bought a speedboat with four 250hp engines, and on Chinese nationals involved in this huge network of exploitation and abuse who are perhaps linked to the Triad, or Chinese mafia. It seems that one of the two Maltese menhas a rather conspicuous tattoo on his arm. The police have confiscated a number of power boats.[vi] They are also investigating an official in the Maltese embassy in Beijing whose name has been divulged by the Maltese press.

In an article in The Malta Independent, senior journalist Noel Grima referred to “what looks like a huge network” that is organizing the arrival of Chinese nationals in Malta as legal visitors and their clandestine transfer to Italy on very fast boats that cross in just over an hour. “They seem to be settling in Tuscany and similar regions in the central part of Italy where some are sent to work in sweat shops for a meagre pay of 40 to 50 euros a week.” Others are roped into the prostitution business.[vii]

But that there is also disagreement between Malta and Italy on another, traditionally contentious issue: On Monday 28 March, the Italian ambassador in Malta, Alvise Memmo, said that his government was “upset” that the Maltese authorities were resisting a request to take back 46 Chinese immigrants who, “evidence proved,” had travelled to Italy illegally from Malta. The Maltese Home Affairs Minister, Tonio Borg, said that Malta would accept to take the Chinese migrants once it was satisfied they had indeed left from Malta.[viii] Giuseppe Bellassai, chief of the Ragusa police mobile squad, has claimed in Corriere della Sera that 10 boatloads of Chinese have arrived in Sicily from Malta over the past two months. “They leave from Malta to Sicily where they find the support of organisations led by other Chinese immigrants. Two have already been arrested to help in investigations.”[ix] It is estimated that there are between 200,000 and 300,000 Chinese nationals residing in Italy without the necessary permits.[x]

The Italians have attacked the Maltese authorities for failing to crack down on traffickers and for allowing relatively large numbers of Chinese to enter Malta and move on illegally to Italy. On October 16, 2004, for example, 14 Chinese illegal immigrants were caught in Sicily and the Italian police suspected they arrived there from Malta. This was the second landing of Chinese illegal immigrants on the Ragusa coast in less than four days. On 2 October, 32 illegal immigrants landed between Torre del Mezzo and Marina di Ragusa. Twenty-two said they were Chinese, and the other 10 claimed to be Egyptians, Iraqis and Palestinians.[xi]
 
On 11 June, 2004, two Maltese men, Tony Gauci, 48, and Emanuel Seychell, 37, were caught in Pozzallo after allegedly ferrying four Chinese illegal immigrants from Malta to Sicily on board a yacht called Adelina. Another seven Chinese immigrants were intercepted at Punta di Mola on 31 July.[xii] According to Italian newspaper reports, about 300 Chinese have entered Italy illegally through Malta between October 2004 and March 2005. Over a year ago, Italy and Malta agreed that illegal immigrants who may have transited in Malta before landing in Italy would be sent back to Malta and this has happened on a number of occasions.[xiii]

In an editorial of the influential Maltese newspaper The Sunday Times, Laurence Grech argued that in the light of the “disquieting news” about the deaths of the Chinese and Mongolian migrants that has put the island “in a very bad light,” “the greatest sign of co-operation by Malta in bringing the criminals involved to justice would be to hand over any Maltese suspects to the Italian authorities to undergo criminal proceedings in Sicily (as they have invariably done), once the crime happened on Italian territory.[xiv]

The Italian daily Il Manifesto has reported that according to the Italian Home Affairs Minister, Giuseppe Pisanu, in the past few years at least 1167 persons have failed to reach the island of Sicily and have perished in the Mediterranean sea. but, of course, it is impossible to know how many more have actually died trying to get to Italy.[xv]

The Maltese government has strongly denied the allegations that it has not done its utmost to assist the Sicilian authorities in their work and the Commissioner of Police has said that both police forces have always had the best of relations and that they have always assisted each other in such investigations.

The uproar over the brutal murder of the migrants has had its effects. Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg told newspapers on Monday 28 March that a number of people had been held in connection with the investigations into this case. Meanwhile, according to The Malta Independent, Italian media reports said the police in Malta had made searches in various localities “known for criminal activity and in particular in the areas where Chinese immigrants live.” Searches were conducted in various homes, shops and stores.[xvi]

The Italian national television station RAI has given prominence to what the Maltese opposition foreign affairs spokesman Leo Brincat had said in Parliament last December 2004, when he alleged that a diplomat in the Maltese embassy in Beijing was working in collusion with a Chinese travel agent to issue visas to potential migrants posing as Chinese students of English in Malta.

One of the six survivors, a young woman, told the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that the speedboat left Malta at one o’clock in the morning on that ill-fated Thursday. At 3.30am one of the two Maltese men ordered the migrants to jump into the sea because they were close to Sicily. It was not true at all. To make matters worse, the sea was very cold (2°C) and some of the migrants couldn’t swim.[xvii]


Male Nostrum

Babelmed | 31/03/2005

Il Manifesto reported on Friday 25 March that according to a report by the Maltese secret service, there are about 500 Chinese people waiting to try to enter Sicily. Every week about 200 Chinese people arrive in Malta with the necessary visa issued in Beijing. It seems that the secret Maltese report claims that 70% of all Chinese who arrive in Malta disappear after a few days. A Chinese immigant has claimed that he paid 1,000 dollars to obtain a visa from the Maltese embassy.[xviii] In a strongly-worded article in L-Orizzont entitled “Idejkom bid-Demm” (Your Blood-stained Hands), in which he asks for the immediate resignation of the Home Affairs minister, Joe Chetcuti asks why the authorities, who are aware of what is going on (they would be truly incompetent if they weren’t), don’t seem to be doing much to stop these shameful acts.[xix]

It has been estimated that from 1990 to 2000 more than 180,000 people arrived in Europe illegally by crossing the Mediterranean Sea that has been dubbed by Il Manifesto, “il Male Nostrum.”[xx] In her analysis of the issue of “Migrant Smuggling Via Maritime Routes” (2004), Paola Monzini of the Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale (Centre for the Study of International Politics) argues that the number of illegal immigrants arriving via maritime routes to Southern Europe “grew enormously in the last decade of the 20th century” and “the Mediterranean Sea has been identified as the main clandestine gateway to the European Union.” It seems that “migrant smuggling via maritime routes has seen a rapid and impetuous increase” because “it is the cheapest sector of the market for illegal immigration,” and because “it satisfies the demand coming from the most ‘urgent’ migratory pressures.”[xxi]

Monzini, whose main sources are judicial files, police records and data, and interviews with governmental and non-governmental experts, identifies six major maritime routes in the Mediterranean that lead the migrants to Italy that have been developed since 1991. One of these routes starts from the Maltese archipelago, “which functions as a focal point of itineraries originating on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, by fishing boat, rubber dinghy or fast launches.” However, Monzini argues that the shortest crossing routes, mainly across the Otranto and Sicily-Malta channels, have been “progressively subject to more and more stringent controls.” The “strengthening of the Italian co-operation – including judicial co-operation – with Albania and Malta has had the effect of increasing risks, and therefore costs, for smuggling organizations.”

Libya, in the meantime, has emerged as a transit country. The recruitment basin of

the migrants who arrive in Sicily from North Africa has widened due to wars and political instability. Part of the flow which previously arrived through the Suez Canal now comes through the Sicily channel, and the growing difficulties involved in passing through the Straits of Gibraltar have contributed to an increase in the flow from Libya. Monzini argues that the constant adaptation of migratory flows to the availability of opportunities and crossable routes is evident; in Libya, the specialization of the organizations which control sea crossings has created the opportunity for a widening of the range of nationalities transported.

Malta and Immigration in the EU

Malta, a stone’s throw away from mainland Europe, has always been attractive as a stepping stone. Tighter controls on this ignoble business will make it more difficult for the traffickers but it will not stop them. “Più è pericoloso e degradante lo sbarco,” wrote Guglielmo Ragozzino in his front page editorial on Il Manifesto on 25 March, 2005, “più la malavita ne trae vantaggio.”[xxii] (“The more dangerous and degrading the landing is, the more the criminals take advantage of the situation.”)

I tend to disagree with those who argue that now that Malta is a member of the EU it has become more attractive to people traffickers. It has been amply documented that the vast majority of the asylum seekers who end up in Malta are saved from sure death by the Maltese armed forces patrolling the coasts or are washed ashore against their will. Those who are refused refugee status in Malta know that they have little or no chance of being accepted in any other EU country. That leaves them stranded here on one of the most densely populated islands in the world. As Clare Azzopardi recounts in her excellent short story “/no adjective describe story/,”[xxiii] some choose to take to the seas again in order to try to get into Italy in a clandestine way. If anything, Malta’s new status as a member of the EU has added to its so-called “security” obligations and this hasn’t made life for the asylum seeker any better.

On the other hand, it is probably true that in the eyes of those involved in the trafficking of Chinese migrants into Europe, entering Malta with a visa may be a convenient way of moving onto mainland Europe. However, if it is true that most of these Chinese migrants end up trying to reach the Italian coast in a clandestine way, then Malta is no more than a stage on a longer journey, not an “entry point” into Europe.

The Maltese government, and probably a good chunk of the Maltese population, cannot seem to come to terms with the fact that the flow of people from an impoverished South to a relatively comfortable North is something that is here to stay. It is an issue that has little to do with Malta itself and a lot to do with the gross inequalities that exist in a world where the rich get richer and the poor get invariably poorer. Many Maltese are, often superificially, aware of these larger issues but they cannot see, or they refuse to acknowledge, that these gross inequalities push people from the South to the North.

“People move,” writes Yann Martel in his 2001 prize-winning novel Life of Pi, “because of the wear and tear of anxiety. Because of the gnawing feeling that no matter how hard they work their efforts will yield nothing, that what they build up in one year will be torn down in one day by others. Because of the impression that the future is blocked up, that they might do all right but not their children. Because of the feeling that nothing will change, that happiness and prosperity are possible only somewhere else.[xxiv]

The editor of The Times, Ray Bugeja, describes “irregular immigration” as the “foremost foreign policy issue facing Malta today and for the foreseeable future.” He urgest the government of Malta to embark on a “determined diplomatic offensive” to rally the concrete support of the other members of the EU. “The support must take the form of financial aid to put in place better basic organisational facilities to receive, administer and care for an increasing number of immigrants. It should include specialised manpower assistance.” Ray Bugeja argues that this support “must also take the form of real EU burden-sharing and diplomatic muscle to deal with the prevention of immigration at source, as well as the repatriation and resettlement of those who reach our shores.”[xxv]

One would have expected Mr. Bugeja and other opinion makers to argue that Malta should also embark on an equally assertive diplomatic offensive to address the injustices and inequalities that force people to “uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon” (Martel again). Now that it is a member of an economic and political powerhouse, Malta should be in a better position to actively lobby the EU to push for reforms in vital areas such as access to European markets for products from the poorer South and measures that ensure the sustainable development of countries that have bore the brunt of the often savage “progress” that has widened the gap between rich and poor, both between the North and the South and between privileged and underprivileged communities within the North itself. This sounds idealistic, and that is precisely what it is – but wasn’t joining the EU all about ideals? Or was it about expecting others to do for us what we are not ready to do for them? Is Malta now better placed to have a bigger say in the issues that affect the lives of the majority of the people of the world? Do we care?

In his editorial Ray Bugeja argues that we must also “face frankly our own attitudes as a nation to asylum-seekers. We cannot brush under the carpet our valid and genuine concerns to the introduction of alien cultures, backgrounds and religions and of the economic impact on our stretched resources and employment opportunities. Yet neither can we shirk our international and moral responsibilities towards those seeking asylum.” Despite the “rocky economic patch” Malta is going through, “we must show we are ready to shoulder our fair share of responsibility for those genuinely worse off than ourselves.”[xxvi]

Malta żgħira u n-nies magħrufa

In a country where, as the proverb goes, “Malta żgħira u n-nies magħrufa” (Malta is such a small island that everyone knows about one another), it is difficult to understand how traffickers with particularly powerful and well-equipped boats manage to get away with murder. The Opposition spokesman on home affairs, Gavin Gulia, suggests that the criminals involved in this despicable trade may also be involved in other crimes and therefore they may already be known to the police.[xxvii] Must people die and have the “fortune” of being found floating in the sea to jerk the country into action?

The tragedy of the Chinese and Mongolian persons who died on Thursday 24 March reminds many people of the horrific death of 286 migrants from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Italian territorial waters, off the southern coast of Sicily early on Boxing Day 1996. The Captain of the ship “Yiohan” and its crew forced the passengers to board a smaller Maltese boat, the 16-metre long F 174, in spite of the adverse sea conditions and strong opposition by the passengers. In the process, the two ships collided and most of those on the Maltese boat were sucked under when it sank. Only two dozen made it back onto the freighter.

“The Yiohan limped to Greece, where survivors spoke of the horror. And no one cared. Not the coastguard, not the Italian government, not the media. A cursory search for debris or bodies yielded nothing, so the story was dismissed.” It became the “phantom shipwreck.” That changed on 12 January 1997 when an investigation by The Observer of London, followed by investigative work by reporters in Greece, Italy, Pakistan, and Malta proved that the shipwreck had happened.[xxviii]

What would have happened had no one of the betrayed migrants survived? Would I be writing this article? Would the Maltese and Italian governments be clamping down on the evil trade that makes it all possible?

The “mare nostrum” is a cemetery,[xxix] a mass grave where many betrayed people and many uncomfortable truths have been buried, perhaps for ever.

Male Nostrum” indeed.

30 March 2005


[i] Karl Stagno Navarra, “L-istraġi ta’ Pozzallo, tissikka l-morsa madwar il-Maltin involuti,” MaltaRightNow.com, 30 March 2005, http://www.maltarightnow.com/news/portal.asp?module=article&t=a&aid=2506&cid=19 and Michele Giuffrida, “Massacrati di botte da uomini armati,” La Repubblica, 25 March 2005, http://www.repubblica.it/2005/c/sezioni/cronaca/sbarchi/govmaslt/govmaslt.html.

[ii] Herman Grech, “Migrants drown off Sicily. Malta link suspected,” The Times, Saturday, March 26, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=181786.

[iii] Herman Grech, “Malta defends its position – and reputation,” The Sunday Times, March 27, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=181916. See also “Cinesi, scontro Italia-Malta,” Il Manifesto, 27 March 2005, 7. http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/27-Marzo-2005/pagina07.htm.

[iv] Giovanni Pluchino, “Visti “facili,” coinvolto diplomatico maltese, La Sicilia, 30 March 2005, 9,  http://www.lasicilia.it/giornale/3003/interno_estero/ie09/a05.htm.

[v] “Cinesi, scontro Italia-Malta,” Il Manifesto.

[vi] Stagno Navarra, “L-istraġi ta’ Pozzallo, tissikka l-morsa madwar il-Maltin involuti.” See also Massimo Farrugia, “Police await forensic test results on speedboats,” The Times, Wednesday, March 30, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=182293, and Charlot Zahra, “Testimony of Chinese survivor sent to Maltese authorities,” The Malta Independent, Wednesday, March 30, 2005, http://217.145.4.56/ind/news.asp?newsitemid=13734.

[vii] Noel Grima, “More deaths of Chinese illegal immigrants as police investigate claims about Maltese embassy,” The Malta Independent, Monday, March 28, 2005,

[viii] Massimo Farrugia, “Italy insists 46 migrants had left from Malta,” The Times, Monday, March 28, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=182039.

[ix] “Five Chinese immigrants found dead on Sicilian shores,” The Malta Independent, Thursday, December 16, 2004, http://217.145.4.56/ind/news.asp?newsitemid=9397.

[x] Massimo Farrugia, “Italy insists 46 migrants had left from Malta,” The Times, Monday, March 28, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=182039.

[xi] Charlot Zahra, “Yet another landing in Ragusa of Chinese illegal immigrants from Malta,” The Malta Independent, Thursday, October 07, 2004, http://217.145.4.56/ind/news.asp?newsitemid=8273. See also the article by Angele Spiteri Paris, “Chinese woman admitted acting as intermediary in botched-up trip to Sicily,” The Malta Independent, Wednesday, February 02, 2005, http://217.145.4.56/ind/news.asp?newsitemid=11186.

[xii] Zahra, “Yet another landing in Ragusa of Chinese illegal immigrants from Malta.”

[xiii] Laurence Grech, “Inhuman Traffic,” The Sunday Times, March 27, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=181945.

[xiv] Grech, “Inhuman Traffic.”

[xv]Quanti immigrati siano morti nel Canale di Sicilia nel tentativo di arrivare in Italia non si saprà mai.” “Più di mille morti,” Il Manifesto, 25 March 2005, 6, http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/25-Marzo-2005/art38.html.

[xvi] Charlot Zahra, “Italian investigators meeting today about Pozzallo tragedy,” Tuesday, March 29, 2005, http://217.145.4.56/ind/news.asp?newsitemid=13704. See also “Migrant deaths off Sicily. Arrests in Malta,” in The Times, Monday, March 28, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=182038.

[xvii] “Abbandonati in mare dagli scafisti: sei morti,” Corriere della Sera, 24 March, 2005, http://www.corriere.it/Primo_Piano/Cronache/2005/03_Marzo/24/barcone.shtml

[xviii] Alfredo Pecoraro, “Ci hanno costretti a buttarci in mare,” Il Manifesto, 25 March 2005, 6, http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/25-Marzo-2005/art39.html.

[xix] Joe Chetcuti, “Idejkom bid-Demm,” L-Orizzont, Tuesday 29 March 2005,

http://www.l-orizzont.com/news.asp?newsitemid=18159.

[xx] “Male Nostrum,” Il Manifesto, 25 March 2005, 1, http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/25-Marzo-2005/art6.html

[xxi] Paola Monzini, “Migrant Smuggling Via Maritime Routes” (Rome: Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale, 2004), http://www.cespi.it/cnr/Monzini-ing.pdf.

[xxii] Guglielmo Ragozzino, “Luci d’Italia” (Editoriale), Il Manifesto, 25 March 2005, 1. http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/25-Marzo-2005/art5.html

[xxiii] Available in Maltese at http://klandestini.britishcouncil.org/maltese/malta/kitbiettal-progett/l-ahjarkitbiet/noadjectivedescribestory/ and in English at http://klandestini.britishcouncil.org/english/malta/projecttexts/besttexts/noadjectivedescribestory/.

[xxiv] Yann Martel, Life of Pi (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2001) 79.

[xxv] Ray Bugeja, “Irregular immigration: time for action,” The Times, Monday, March 28, 2005, http://www.timesofmalta.com/core/article.php?id=182068.

[xxvi] Bugeja, “Irregular immigration: time for action.”

[xxvii] Gavin Gulia,  “Scafisti (1),” L-Orizzont, Tuesday, 29 March 2005,

http://www.l-orizzont.com/news.asp?newsitemid=18162.

[xxviii] Rory Carroll, John Hooper and David Rose, “Fishermen’s nets haul in secrets of immigrant ‘ship of death,’” The Observer, Sunday June 10, 2001. Also available at http://observer.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,,504534,00.html.

[xxix] “Male Nostrum,” Il Manifesto, 25 March 2005, 1, http://www.ilmanifesto.it/Quotidiano-archivio/25-Marzo-2005/art6.html.

Adrian Grima


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