14th October 2021Mediterranean Conference Centre
Executive Director Nina Gregori,
Members of Parliament,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is indeed my privilege to have this occasion to address such an audience in this historical surrounding, on this important occasion marking the 10th Anniversary of the European Asylum Support Office, which Malta has been proudly hosting since its inception.
The choice of Malta to host the Office – the first EU agency based here in Malta – was in itself a remarkable achievement for my country, only a few years following its accession to the European Union in the year 2004.
Along these years, the Office has evolved very significantly both in terms of resources and in terms of the support it provides, and the services it renders.
A quick glance at the statistics is very revealing and encouraging.
While in 2011 EASO had only 60 staff, the plan for 2021 is that of 500 staff, based in Malta, as well as in Operations elsewhere.
Equally notable is the increase in its budget from 10M euros in 2011 to over 142M euros for the year 2021.
This is the second EASO event I attend since taking up office as President of the Republic, and follows a previous, most interesting visit that took place last year to the EASO offices.
On that occasion, I was given a very thorough explanation of the extensive work carried out by the Office, which to my mind is nothing short of impressive.
I was struck by the hands-on, very tangible way in which along the years EASO has developed training, practical tools and guidance and recommendations.
The level of outreach is exemplary for any other institution, when one considers that over 40,000 participants have been trained thus far.
It also seems that COVID did really not stand in the way of the Office’s operations as these kept running very smoothly with assistance being provided to Member States in addressing the challenges that the pandemic brought about for the asylum and reception systems.
Speaking about challenges, we cannot in today’s context omit to mention the 2015 crisis.
I still vividly recall the way matters unfolded as I was then serving Malta as Minister for Foreign Affairs.
This was a crisis like no other.
No one was prepared for its magnitude, the changes to the geopolitical scenario it triggered and the questions we had to start posing on our own internal structures and mechanisms.
The political discussions were heated to say the least and points of discord we still witness on the issue of migration were already very evident at that time.
In the midst of the confusion and uncertainty that prevailed, EASO played a central role in the implementation of the EU Agenda on migration. In particular, the Agency was tasked to support Italy and Greece with the implementation of the Emergency EU Relocation Scheme 2015-2017.
Allow me a small parenthesis here to add that, despite its own crippling obstacles and limitations, Malta took a very strong part in this scheme – and fully met its quota. And I have to say it is sad to note that few EU Member States did this.
Let me now move on to highlight the latest developments concerning EASO and Malta.
This relationship intensified on as disembarkations in Malta became more frequent and increased in 2019, and support from EASO was requested for the first time.
The first Operational and Technical Assistance Plan agreed was signed in June 2019.
Under a Plan signed in December 2019 the Agency’s support was increased significantly, including support also in terms of reception, including case management, age assessment and vulnerability screening, assessment, as well as referral.
Malta is thankful to the Office for the multifaceted support ranging from the establishment of an asylum processing facility, the registration and screening of voluntary relocation cases; timely screening and referral of vulnerable persons – a horizontal activity reflected throughout all the measures – amongst others.
In order to relieve the pressure on the Maltese asylum and reception systems, EASO is also enhancing the capacity to deal with cases where Malta is not responsible for the asylum application, the so-called Dublin procedure.
I note that here EASO provides full support for the Dublin Unit with EASO experts completing 100% of all Dublin outgoing procedure activities in 2021.
At the same time, EASO is working together with the International Protection Agency to enhance the guidelines, procedures and tools, as well as to create adequate capacity for the asylum procedure quality control and the country of origin information.
EASO provides support to Malta with relocations following ad-hoc disembarkations in 2019 and 2020.
Very commendably, EASO responded to 100% of all Search and Rescue events involving relocation in Malta after this initial request for assistance.
In view of Malta’s placing in the Euro-Mediterranean region, it is also useful to underline today the work that EASO is carrying out in our immediate neighbourhood particularly in countries like Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, and the Western Balkans.
Capacity building is crucial here and the work carried out in this regard by EASO can bring immediate benefits to the authorities concerned to establish the necessary structures, workflows, and capacity for proper implementation.
Looking ahead, with the entering into force of the Regulation establishing the European Union Agency for Asylum (EUAA), the Agency will be equipped with new tools to encourage operational cooperation between EU countries and Third Countries.
The new Regulation is also expected to enable the Agency to deploy Liaison Officers in Third Countries, reinforcing the Agency’s capacity and presence on the ground.
We all look forward to witness how the mandate will enhance the Agency’s role and its ability to support Member States, as well as its external dimension role.
In a nutshell, all of you at EASO, represent a success story that Malta proudly hosts.
Well done to all of you and I urge you to continue delivering results with this level of commitment and with these high standards.
The flip side of the coin, however, presents a different scenario altogether.
For the success-story that is EASO, is a far cry from the progress, or lack of it, made at the intergovernmental level to unblock the lack of consensus on the issue of migration.
It was a divisive subject in my days as Minister, and still is now, unfortunately – with the added disadvantage of positions now having become predictable at best and more entrenched at worst.
Despite the several attempts made and initiatives taken, including many by Malta itself along these past years – I can mention the Valletta Summit 2015, Malta Declaration 2017, the September 2020 Meeting on Disembarkation to mention but a few initiatives – results come nowhere close to addressing our fundamental needs.
Malta continues to attach priority and great importance to the implementation of the Joint Valletta Action Plan (JVAP).
The Processes of Rabat and Khartoum have been instrumental in the implementation and monitoring of the Joint Valletta Action Plan.
It is very important for all parties to increase their collective efforts towards those who need it most; further emphasising return and readmission and the role that countries of origin have to play in this regard; and supporting international cooperation to tackle migrant smuggling and human trafficking.
I remain very seriously concerned with the continuing irregular flows arriving at the EU’s external borders – the Central Mediterranean route continues to see the highest number of crossings and the highest number of deaths.
The pressure might be exacerbated by the recent situation in Afghanistan, and develop into a migration crisis for which we are not prepared, and the fall out of which, is something we cannot even imagine.
The time is ripe for our leaders to take stock at the upcoming European Council of the implementation of the taskings emanating from the June European Council Conclusions.
A year after the presentation of the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, progress on an effective and permanent solidarity mechanism remains very, very limited.
One could go as far as saying that the word ‘solidarity’ – enshrined in the Treaty – seems to have lost its value, meaning, and the attached responsibility.
We know all too well that discussions are not and will not be easy, but this is no excuse for us not to give this very important issue the attention it deserves.
We cannot keep telling our citizens that despite all our talk on solidarity, we still lack the effective assurances needed.
In the medium and long-term, prevention of irregular migratory flows and enhanced returns are of utmost importance, and this can only be ensured through increased cooperation with third countries.
For the Central Mediterranean Route, Libya and Tunisia remain a priority.
In all my meetings with representatives of the Libyan Government – primarily Prime Minister Dbeibah and Foreign Minister Mangoush – I have heard constantly calls for support on their southern borders, to limit irregular entries into Libya.
This would need to complement support in managing their sea borders, through capacity building measures and pre-frontier aerial surveillance.
Let us be clear – as has already been said, by ourselves alone, we cannot control our borders, save lives, and help those that need protection.
To do this we need support from our partners.
Libya is cooperating, and this is clearly reflected through the interception of over more than 21,000 persons so far in 2021.
Malta is also doing its part.
The various reforms have been put in place to improve our procedures and increase returns, however arrivals remain dependent on the cooperation with the Libyan authorities.
We need to assure Libya of our continued support and back up our promises with targeted actions. We also need to ensure that our own agencies are providing us with the support we request.
If we are to have some degree of success, we need all the support we can get.
Cooperation by third countries will inevitably take time to bear fruit. In this regard, we need to ensure that the June European Council Conclusions are implemented as soon as possible, and that the necessary financial resources are secured.
Support must be made available to the respective partner countries.
From my very own perspective, I remain troubled at the lack of consensus – indeed divisions – that the issue of migration stirs among Member States.
If these continue to prevail, and at every step forward setbacks of a political nature emerge, then we will again – I underline again – be looking at a scenario where the frontline countries are left to fend on their own.
I have started to ask myself whether the time has come for progress to be made by those who really want it – and are ready to contribute to it. Does the willingness to act tangibly for a solution by many have to be blocked by the decision of the few?
Could this be a case where a ‘coalition of the willing’ among EU Member States, takes the lead?
If we cannot act in unison as 27, we have to seek other solutions, if need be, amongst a smaller number of willing members, willing to act together.
There are several other questions to pose on this issue – and most will remain unanswered.
I will on today’s auspicious occasion frame my final message in what President Van der Leyen had to say on migration in her inspiring – I would say landmark Speech on the State of the Union, only a few days ago.
I, like President Van der Leyen hope to see ‘trust’ emerge between all Members, “trust for Europeans that migration can be managed, and above all, trust that Europe will always live up to its enduring duty to the most vulnerable and most in need.”
We should all do our part to translate this vision into fact.
I wish you all every success in your deliberations.
Thank you for your attention.