Geographically, Malta is positioned in a central position in the Mediterranean Sea. It is located 93km (58 miles) from the south of Sicily and 288km (179 miles) from North Africa. It thereby has proximity to both mainland Europe (Malta is the southernmost tip of the European Union) and the African continent. Due to its particular location, it sometimes serves to be the place where people who leave Africa
surreptitiously (so as to build a better future in Europe or elsewhere) land, after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. Such crossings are normally made in small boats that are filled to capacity. These boats are hardly seaworthy and many who undertake these types of voyages die at sea as a result of the perils encountered (Pisani, 2012, Spiteri 2012, Texeire, 2006). These Africans are referred to generally as ‘irregular migrants.’ This is because they travel without any identification documents either because these are non-existent in their home-countries, or because they destroy them since they fear possible forced repatriation if they are found on them. In most cases, they are formally referred to as ‘asylum seekers’ or ‘people from an asylum seeking background’ since they would normally apply for some form of national or international protection so as to be enabled to remain on the island legally. Most of the Africans come from countries in the Horn of Africa, namely Eritrea, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia,
although some have also come from West African countries such as Mali and the Ivory Coast (Pisani, 2012, Spiteri, 2008, St. John, Delicata and Azzopardi, 2008). The majority are single men who are mainly young adults in their 20s or 30s, although, on some boats, women and children are also present.
The phenomenon of asylum seekers landing in Malta by boat is fairly recent. It is believed to date back to 2001 when a boat-load of 57 such people landed on Malta’s shores. Prior to 2001, particularly in the early 1990s, other asylum seekers had come to Malta from crisis areas in the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe, at that time coming mainly from Iraq and Bosnia. However, since the Africans came in regular waves and at the moment there appears to be no end in sight when they will stop coming, their arrival in Malta has caused alarm amongst the local population. Most Maltese people see the consistent arrival of asylum-seekers from Africa on Malta’s shores as posing economic challenges to the country. They believe that particularly due to Malta’s small geographic size (318 square meters) and its high population density (Malta’s population is roughly slightly less than half a million people), there is a limit to how many asylum-seekers the country can take in (Pisani, 2011, Spiteri, 2008, Spiteri and Zammit, 2011). In effect, in terms of relative population statistics in relation to Malta’s size and population density, the arrival of just one asylum seeker to Malta is computed as being approximately equivalent to the arrival of 140 migrants in Italy or 150 migrants in the United Kingdom (Department of Information Report,