Malta's Christians Determined to Help Refugees

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VALLETTA, Malta -- The current Libyan crisis is being felt by European countries around the Mediterranean as thousands of refugees flee the North African war.

The small island nation of Malta is struggling to deal with the wave of people seeking asylum.

"I passed four days and four nights in the sea. And some of my friends were dying there," Muhammad Hussein told CBN News.

Hussein left his wife and five children in Somalia and went out in search of a better life for himself and his family. The journey wound through Uganda, Sudan, and across the Sahara Desert before reaching the shores of Libya.

"Sometimes if I remember the journey that I did before, it is very dangerous. I saw a lot of people who died in the Sahara. I saw myself," he recalled.

Then came the long boat ride to Malta and he hoped, freedom.

Malta has a long tradition of hosting refugees. One of the most well known is the Apostle Paul, who was shipwrecked off the coast in 60 A.D.

What's changed between then and now is that Malta has become one of the most populous countries in Europe. That means there are precious few resources to go around.

"You can never leave anybody homeless and even though we don't have the resources to put up a lot of people in their own independent accommodations," Father Joseph Cassar said.

Cassar leads the Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta. He says the current flock of refugees is just a drop in the bucket compared to those who are already in the system.

"Between 2002 and 2009, some 30,000 asylum seekers reached Malta on small boats, and for the most part departing the coast of Libya," he explained.

"Once they arrive on the island, asylum seekers are put in detention. And for the length of time it takes for their asylum procedure to be concluded, positively or otherwise, they will stay there," he added.

If asylum is granted, they are allowed to leave detention, but the challenges of their new lives are just beginning.

Hussein lives in a tent city and is free to go out looking for work. But this wasn't what he had in mind when he left Somalia.

"Clearly, the life here is very hard. In this tent I live with more than 20 persons. At least four or five of those people have tuberculosis," he said.

"Even though once they are released with protection, and therefore being given international protection in Malta, they would be allowed to seek work," Cassar explained.

"But resources being what they are, they very often end up with no possibility to work and therefore have no ability to lead an independent life without having to rely on benefits," he continued.

The U.S. has agreed to give refuge to at least 500 asylum seekers in the coming months, though for Malta, the numbers expected to make landfall could easily be many times that.

But Christians on Malta like Cassar are committed to continue helping as many as they can

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Chuck Holton

Chuck Holton

CBN News Reporter

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