By Shaun Ley
Presenter, BBC Radio 4's The World This Weekend

"The boat was very small, the water easily gets in the boat, and the boat is leaking even before you get in the boat."

A quietly spoken 24-year-old Ethiopian man sits in the spartan office of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta. He is typical of the thousands of African men, women and children who risk a perilous sea crossing on the Mediterranean hoping for a new life in Europe.

What began as a trickle - six years ago, 500 were rescued by the Maltese - now feels to islanders like a flood. In the 12 months to March, some 3,400 arrived.

The man I am talking to paid $1,000 (£660), and left Africa only at his 14th or 15th attempt. He was put in a leaky boat, overloaded with other passengers.

They had limited food, and their only guide was a compass. He was rescued off Malta, but then spent more than one year in custody.

Legal dispute

Melita II is one of the search and rescue boats which pluck tired, hungry migrants from the sea. Its crew all have distressing stories to tell.

In one case last year, the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM), had to choose between saving a drowning mother or saving her two young daughters. The children lived, the mother did not.

No-one knows how many fail to make it to land.

Major Wallace Camilleri, in charge of the Maritime Squadron, describes their job as preventing the Mediterranean from becoming a graveyard.

Few are seeking a new life on Malta. So why do so many end up here? At the Rescue Coordination Centre in the capital Valletta, Major Andrew Malia shows me why.

Malta is responsible for search and rescue in an area stretching from Tunisia in the west to Crete in the east - from Sicily to the island's north and Libya in the south.

For that reason, in a couple of recent cases Italy has refused to accept migrants, even when they have been intercepted closer to the Italian island of Lampedusa than to Malta.

It says that under international maritime law, they must be taken to the nearest safe port - and Lampedusa is not safe.

'Burden sharing'

Malta is incensed. In his office, below classic paintings of great naval battles fought off the Maltese coast, Interior Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici says the Italians are not playing fair.

The island joined the European Union five years ago, and had hoped that other countries would lend a hand.

Mr Bonnici wants "burden sharing" across the 27 member states. Put simply, other nations should take some of the migrants.

After all, he tells me, they will find it hard to integrate there, but could do so in countries which already had established African communities.

The UK is clearly one of those countries he has in mind. He says his opposite number, Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, has listened sympathetically to his problems.

"We have very good links with the United Kingdom. We are, with Cyprus, two countries in the Commonwealth. There is a lot of affinity between us. So help in that direction would not be a bad gesture," he says.

Partnership agreement

The ruling Nationalist Party (PN) is very pro-EU. So is the opposition Labour Party, although it has a recent history of Euroscepticism.

The shadow immigration spokesman, Michael Falzon, says that if other European governments can not be persuaded to share the load, then Malta should get tough. Employing its veto, disrupting the EU's business, might make other countries address the problem, he says.

On Thursday, Italy announced that the latest group of migrants to be rescued - 226 Africans in two boats - were being transferred straight back to Libya. This is the first fruit of a new partnership agreement with the Libyan government.

Next Friday, the two countries will begin joint patrols, although with six boats to cover the whole of Libya's extensive coastline, the statement from the Italian Interior Minister, Robert Maroni, that "on that day I expect the flow of people entering Italy from Libya to stop" seems optimistic.

It seems even more so when you unlock the doors in the detention camp at Ta' Kandja. This is a police training centre. But at present it is home to 355 African migrants.


The new, hastily built accommodation block is better than some. It compares favourably, for example, to the converted barracks at Hal Safi - "a microwave in summer and a fridge in winter", according to a 2007 report by the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights (UNHCR).

At Ta' Kandja, there is air conditioning, a small exercise yard, showers and toilets. But wives are separated from husbands, four showers and toilets serve 40 women, and the custodians are all male. This is not a prison, but Malta's so-called "administrative detention" is no holiday camp. There is still a lock on the door.

Showing me around, Lt Col Brian Gatt, commander of Malta's Detention Services, is patient but made weary by the conflicting demands. This is not why he became a soldier.

But caught between the politicians and the critics - the UN has called some Maltese facilities "appalling", while Katrine Camilleri of the Jesuit Refugee Service says detention is unnecessary on a small island, as well as being inhumane - he and his men must do the best they can.

And the migrants themselves? Bored, with only a television and a set of dominoes to fill the long hours of their confinement, they face detention for up to 18 months.

Those who spoke English expressed to me their gratitude for Maltese hospitality, but also a desire for "freedom". Malta is not their European dream.

From the Maltese, I heard two sentiments - a desire to help, a worry that the island cannot cope. Even the country's deputy prime minister has used the word "invasion".

In 1565, the Siege of Malta saw this island withstand the might of the Ottoman Empire. In 1942, it held out for 157 days, until supplies reached the island from the Allies. A grateful British king awarded the people of Malta the George Cross in recognition of their continuing heroic struggle against enemy attack.

Now Malta feels besieged once again, and wonders whether its allies will come to its aid this time.