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A crisis of Papal proportions




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“Help us to recognize from afar those in need, struggling amidst the waves of the sea, dashed against the reefs of unknown shores."

The Pope Francis’ poignant words last weekend called for compassion for the many migrants who make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. Malta is a beacon of hope for many of these people as the closest port of Europe to the African nation of Libya.

His words are not controversial. The Maltese government bears a responsibility to treat these people with respect, as human beings. While it is unfortunate that it has this relatively large burden to bear, the actions of its political elite towards migrants have verged on inhumane.

The same weekend as Pope Francis’ visit saw ninety migrants drown off the coast of the Mediterranean island. Human rights group, Doctors Without Borders, urged Malta to help the survivors, but instead they have been returned to Libya where they face torture and abuse in government detention centres. It has become an all-too-common practice over recent years, a saddening result of a controversial agreement forged between the Maltese government and the Libyan coastguard in 2017.

As part of the agreement, Malta provides funding and training to the Libyan coastguard and in return, Libyans intercept migrants and take them back to local camps. From the start of this year to the end of March, 300 migrants have died attempting to cross to Malta with over 3000 being intercepted and returned to Libya. In 2021 a staggering 30,000 were intercepted with 1500 drowning as they attempted to make the crossing. UN investigators have evidence to suggest that crimes against humanity are being committed against those migrants detained in Libya. Malta’s ignorance and complicity in this tragedy is a stain on its reputation.

The ‘lucky’ few who make it to Malta are met with similar disdain.

The ‘El Hiblu 3’ have featured prominently in the media over their plight in Malta. The three teenagers, two of whom were minors at the time, were met with terrorism charges back in 2019. Their crime? Convincing a ship captain to take them and another hundred other refugees to Malta, rather than be returned to Libya. The young men still await trial but are faced with the real threat of up to thirty years behind bars. Malta has received widespread condemnation over their treatment of the ‘El Hiblu 3’ from various human rights groups, including Amnesty international, and it has even triggered protests at Maltese embassies in countries like the UK.


The three young men were able to speak out for the first time last month, a full three years after the initial incident. Their language skills have ultimately been to their detriment as their role in translating between the group of migrants and the captain of the ship meant the three being classified as the leaders of the revolt.

“You are not statistics but flesh and blood, people with faces and dreams”

The Pope’s words have added relevance to the ElHiblu3 whose future looks bleak, facing nine criminal charges they are unlikely to escape without any prison time. Amara, Kader and Abdalla clearly require compassion and understanding, but are unlikely to receive any.

The ordeal of the ElHiblu3 is symptomatic of a wider issue of racism that grips Malta, with migrants bearing the brunt of this discrimination. Nine days after the arrest of the ElHiblu3, another vile incident took place – one that continues to linger over the island nation. Lassana Cisse, a 42 year old father of two, was murdered in a racially-motivated drive-by shooting. Two soldiers have been accused of the attack and but three years on and his body has still not been returned to his family. To the Maltese elite, the rights of migrants and minority ethnic groups are secondary.

The apathy of Maltese authorities juxtaposes with the scenes witnessed during the Pope’s visit where he was seen embracing migrants and listening to their stories of survival. Since his visit, social media has been inundated with abhorrent messages telling the Pope to “take them back with him to the Vatican”. While you would hope not everyone in Malta shares this shocking lack of empathy, it does not imbue one with confidence in the ability of Malta to get a grip on the situation any time soon.

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