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Maltese arrivals

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Public perception is that it is only men who make the harrowing journey in open boats from Africa to southern Europe. But many women and children also arrive unannounced in Malta (photo © hidden europe).


Away from the glitz of the tourist resorts, tucked away on the south coast of Malta, are the refugee camps that house migrants from Africa. The men and women who live in the camps are constantly reminded that there is no space for them on the island.

Tareke is an interesting man. Like St Paul, he was washed up in Malta by accident. Arriving unannounced in Malta by boat is generally ill-advised. St Paul somehow got away with it. He enjoyed three months of Maltese hospitality and then continued on his way to Italy. Which is exactly what Tareke would like to do, but it won't happen. For the last couple of years, Tareke has been experiencing a Maltese hospitality very different from that enjoyed by St Paul.

Tareke came by boat, making landfall on Malta's south coast on a hot summer night. That was in 2006. Tareke was one of the lucky ones. The boat was fragile, leaking and overcrowded. The hot weather took its toll and two men, a woman and a baby perished from dehydration on the voyage from Libya. Their bodies were cast into the sea. Tareke survived and found himself stumbling by dark across a rocky foreshore onto real land. Happy to be off the boat at last. Pleased to be alive. Pleased to be in Europe.

Tareke lay on the beach, then walked through the Maltese night, eventually reaching a road where he was found at dawn. Since then Tareke’s European experience has been very different from that which he had envisaged when he was back home in Eritrea. A year in detention at an old army barracks and now a hand-to-mouth existence in a refugee camp. “I had never even heard of Malta,” says Tareke. “When we landed, I thought this must be Italy. Then, in the morning, I heard the voices of the police. The language seemed almost Arabic, and I feared we hadn’t reached Europe at all. Washed up perhaps back in Libya. That would have been the very worst.”

Malta is reluctant host to many thousands of destitute migrants from Africa, none of whom set out from their home countries with Malta in their sights. Each summer brings another wave of arrivals. Many, like Tareke, come from Eritrea. Others come from Ethiopia or Somalia. Yet more from West Africa. For all these refugees, the epic journey from desperate poverty in Africa to a Maltese detention centre is harrowing and dangerous. Tareke’s unsung arrival on a Maltese beach marked the end of a four year journey, one that took him through northern Sudan and across the Libyan border to a desert oasis at Kufra. Stopping off for months here and there, trying to scrape together enough cash to fund the next stage of the journey, Tareke has seen many fellow travellers falter along the way. “My brother died in the desert,” he explains. “We were abandoned by the truck driver, just left to fend for ourselves.”

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