I’m a great supporter of the Schengen Agreement, but what I witnessed this week upon my return to Malta from France would send convulsive chills down the back of any EU immigration officer. Yes, Malta Airport gave a real proper bitch slap to all Schengen countries — I really wish there was a nicer way to say it.
If you’ve travelled to any of the Schengen member states you will know that once within the Schengen Area there are no more passport or immigration controls. The whole zone functions as a single country with a common visa policy. Movement of goods, information, money and people is unrestricted. There are a couple exceptions but we won’t go into that here.
Malta has been part of the Schengen Area since December 21, 2007.
Schengen countries have abolished passport controls between their common borders with the assumption that the abolition of these controls would not come at the expense of security. In order to achieve this, all signatories to the Schengen Agreement are expected to abide by the same Schengen Borders Code.
My story begins with four planes landing at Malta Airport. (1) Air Malta from Paris, (2) Ryan Air from Edinburgh, (3) Libyan Airlines from Tripoli and (4) Air Serbia from Belgrade. All planes landed within a ten minute window and since Malta Airport is relatively small compared to its regional neighbours, an influx of so many passengers can be somewhat chaotic. Ground crews, trucks, buses and even motorized stairs were in a state of disarray.
Passengers are typically driven by bus to and from the aircraft, but when planes park next to the terminal building it’s not uncommon for passengers to walk across the tarmac under ground staff supervision. The airport has two clearly market entries: Schengen and non-Schengen. Passengers arriving on flights from non-Schengen countries are required to enter the terminal building through the corresponding entrance to undergo immigration formalities. Schengen arrivals can walk straight through and bypass passport control altogether.
On this particular day, there was already a pool of passengers from Tripoli waiting on the tarmac. The passengers from my Paris flight joined the group from Tripoli and we waited for the next available ground staff to walk us over to the terminal. When we finally started to move towards the terminal building I complained because there was no need for me to clear immigration since I was arriving from Paris. Realizing their mistake, the ground staff pointed me to the Schengen entry and started shouting after anyone who’d arrived from Paris to follow me. Some passengers turned around but others couldn’t hear because of the aircraft engine noise — most continued onto the non-Schengen doors.
I walked across the tarmac towards the entrance but the people behind me were stopped due to oncoming road traffic. Each approaching truck, luggage trolley or bus would halt the flow of passengers into the terminal building and so the numbers on the tarmac accumulated. Passengers from Belgrade started to mix with those still remaining from Tripoli and Paris. In the distance I could already see the Ryan Air passengers climbing down the stairs from Edinburgh. I stood there for a little while watching this comedy play itself out while thinking about the millions of euros that get spent on policing EU borders.
I’m sure there are protocols to deal with these scenarios and influx of passengers while still ensuring adequate border protection. What I can’t wrap my head around is why Malta Airport didn’t follow any protocols and chose instead to rely on the passengers’ honesty as to their place of origin without any verification whatsoever (Paris to the left, Tripoli to the right). After all, how difficult would it be for passengers from a non-Schengen country to say they were also arriving from Paris? In fact, I’m sure that in the confusion many people simply followed the person in front of them without giving any thought as to the implications of their actions.
Perhaps Malta needs to have it’s periodic Schengen evaluation brought forward and a refresher course given to all border and airport staff.
Even though people weren’t trying to slip into the country illegally, I’d feel sorry for the poor soul who, upon exiting Malta, has to explain to immigration officials how it was they managed to enter without a valid entry stamp or visa in the passport.
Of course, it could have been worse. Imagine the reverse of the scenario I presented, where a planeload of passengers from a non-Schengen country gets directed through the Schengen entrance.
The Conditions of joining the Schengen Area are clearly documented. Joining the Schengen Area is not merely a political decision. The Schengen provisions abolish checks at the Union’s internal borders, while tightening controls at the external borders, in accordance with a single set of rules.
Countries must also fulfil a list of pre-conditions, such as be prepared and have the capacity to:
Applicant countries undergo a “Schengen evaluation” before joining the Schengen Area and periodically thereafter to ensure the correct application of the legislation.
I’m not quite sure when Malta had it’s last periodic Schengen evaluation, but perhaps it should be brought forward along with a refresher course to all border and airport staff. After all, Malta has been part of the Schengen Area since December 21, 2007 and one would hope that processing inbound passengers becomes more streamlined and less convoluted with the passage of time.