As a teen fleeing a forced marriage in Mali, Ali Konate hopscotched between countries before taking his chances on a boat leaving Libya. He spent two nights at sea, fearful of being tossed into the water -- all the more terrifying because he can’t swim.
He had never even heard of Malta before he ended up on its shores.
“I just wanted anywhere I could live my life in a safe way,” Konate said.
Konate is one of more than 16,000 people who have boarded boats and landed on Malta over the last decade, often by accident. The tiny Mediterranean nation is a refugee destination out of happenstance, as people fleeing North Africa aim their boats at the European continent and land on Malta instead.
These "accidents" have put new demands on Malta, a chain of islands of roughly 400,000 people with less acreage than Bakersfield. Malta hastily erected tents to hold more people and pleaded with other countries to take them in. Some did -- but not nearly as many as it had hoped.
“Malta is smaller than an American town,” said Joseph St. John, its policy development director. “We can only integrate so many people.”
Last year, it had the most refugees per square mile in the world, according to figures from the United Nations refugee agency.
European Union countries are bound by an agreement that the first country someone sets foot in is responsible for them. But the drama on Malta is repeated across the globe under international rules. Countries on the fringes of conflict end up with the most refugees, with no guarantee of help.
Huge numbers pour into countries such as Pakistan and Kenya, stretching budgets and testing goodwill as supposedly temporary camps become fixtures. Refugee activists and governments have dreamed of countries sharing the load, but they say the idea is politically stagnant.
Many refugees didn’t really want to go to Malta, and they often feel Malta doesn’t want them. Malta detains people who come by boat for months unless they are deemed vulnerable, saying it must screen for terrorists. Refugee activists argue that the detentions are illegal and dehumanizing; one advocate called it “worse than prison.”