Malta, host of migrant summit, unpopular with refugees but some see land of opportunity

When Success Ibginedion, a young Nigerian woman, was rescued from a smugglers' fishing boat after three days adrift in the Mediterranean Sea, she considered herself both lucky and unlucky.

She felt fortunate that she and her husband were not swallowed up by the waves. And bitter because the survivors were brought to Malta instead of Italy. Like nearly all of those rescued in nearby waters, Ibginedion had dreams of reaching Italy and traveling north to Germany, Sweden or other rich countries with large refugee populations.

But other migrants are making the sea crossing in the other direction, streaming southward by ferry from Italy to Malta. Said Hassan, from Mali, stood on a roadside outside the Maltese capital of Valletta at dawn, in hopes that someone would offer him a black-market day job as a house painter: "In Italy, I don't have work, I don't have a house to live in," said Hassan, explaining why he recently hopped on a ferry from Sicily to Malta.

As Malta hosts an informal summit of EU and African leaders on the migrant crisis this week, these contrasting tales reflect some of the swiftly shifting currents in the flood of asylum seekers through Europe. They also reveal the seemingly contradictory character of Malta itself, a place both fiercely proud of its fortress image as well as a centuries-old tradition of welcoming those fleeing danger.

For now, Ibginedion, along with her husband and their 16-month-old daughter, Glory — born after the couple applied for asylum in Malta — live in a drab, one-room pre-fab container home without running water, in a migrant center outside Valletta.

While Malta has Europe's second-highest rate of granting asylum per capita, that's not much comfort to the young Nigerian mother. She said she fled Nigerian after her father was murdered for his political views, but has few expectations the Maltese will recognize that as a reason for asylum: "They don't think that's enough," she said.

And in any case she and her husband harbor dreams of building a new life in an economic giant such as Germany, instead of being stuck on a remote island known for tourism and tech-sector businesses.

So reluctant are some refugees to land in Malta that hundreds in recent months have refused to disembark from rescue ships on Maltese shores, insisting — successfully — that they be taken to Italy. That's what happened when 220 Syrians were picked up southeast of Malta by a cargo ship in October in stormy seas.

The question of where migrants end up in Europe is an important one for EU and African leaders seeking to map a migrant strategy during the two-day summit starting Wednesday, especially on the issue of mechanisms to repatriate migrants Europe says don't qualify for asylum.

The Maltese government's refugee commissioner, Mario Friggieri, dismissed fears harbored by some migrants that they would languish for long months in severe detention centers in Malta — proudly pointing to Malta's high asylum approval rate.

"There are a lot of myths surrounding the asylum system in all countries, and Malta is not immune to that," Friggeri told The Associated Press on the eve of the summit.

But the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees notes that in Malta, all individuals, including asylum seekers, who arrive without permission from immigration authorities may be detained for as long as 12 months or 18 months if the asylum application is rejected.

Meantime, while migrant boat arrivals in Malta have dramatically dropped off this year, hundreds of asylum-seekers have been coming to the island lately by plane — notably Libyans seeking political asylum who obtain visas back home. Libya and Malta have long have had cozy economic ties, and many Libyans are familiar with the island.

One reality many migrants don't factor in is that workers are in high demand in Malta, especially in construction. Malta's unemployment rate of 5.1 percent is less than half of Italy's rate of 11.8 percent — and the rate in Italy's underdeveloped south, where most migrants first land, runs at about 20 percent.

Malta's low jobless rate has even enticed citizens of other EU countries. So it's logical that some migrants who were granted asylum in Italy look for work in Malta, said Carmelo Abela, Malta's minister for home affairs and national security.

Isaac Fotsotalom, a Cameroonian welder recently seeking work on a roadside, said he has permission to stay in Italy on humanitarian grounds.

Two months ago, he headed to Malta after the company he worked for Italy went out of business.


Stephen Calleja contributed from Malta

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