Proximity has always been the foundation of the relationship between Malta and Libya. Separated by just 290km of the Mediterranean Sea, Libya and Malta share a long and entwined history. The two countries have been trading partners for centuries and have many cultural similarities.
Prior to Benito Mussolini’s colonisation of Libya in the 1930s, the Maltese constituted the largest foreign community in Tripoli, living in a melting pot of cultures with Greeks and Jews; evidence of this old harmony can still be seen in Tripoli's medina.
The Maltese’s refusal to take on Italian nationality led to their expulsion from Libya in the 1930s, and their numbers dwindled further under the repressive Muammar Gaddafi regime.
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But since the 2011 Libyan revolution, the Maltese have returned to the fore. The Maltese government famously accepted two defecting Libyan pilots early on in the revolution, and the country's national airline carrier was the first to resume flights to Libya following Gaddafi's overthrow.
The greatest numbers of applications by far, are for Schengen visas to Malta, with not less than 200 applications being received daily.
Malta markets itself as an advocate of Libya in the European Union. Maltese Foreign Minister George Vella recently stated: "Malta and Libya continue to enjoy good, long-established political and economic relations." Indeed, as political and economic ties are being strengthened – memorandums of understanding were signed on both fronts last year – Malta is coming to be seen as Libya's gateway to Europe.
Since joining the EU in 2004, Malta opted into the Schengen Area, which removes internal barriers and encourages the free movement of people. Husam Mshihit, Operations Manager for VFS Global, a company that processes visa applications, told Al Jazeera that "even the kids in the street know the visa procedures here".
It is increasingly easy for Libyans, who see Malta as a soft entry point into Europe, to apply for and be granted a Schengen visa. "The greatest numbers of applications by far, are for Schengen visas to Malta, with not less than 200 applications being received daily," explained Mshihit, adding that approval rates for these visas sit between 80 and 90 percent. Both VFS and the Maltese Embassy in Tripoli are aware of possible visa fraud, keeping a lookout for sham companies, falsified invitation letters and fraudulent agents.
In 2013, the number of Libyan visitors to Malta stood at 34,621, double the number recorded in 2012. Malta is keen to encourage tourism as one of its key sources of revenue.
"At the end of the day, it’s an income for Malta, especially as the European economy is not doing well," Mshihit said.
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But not all Libyans who arrive in Malta as tourists return home.
An increasing number, mostly young adult males, either overstay their visas or utilise Malta as a springboard to other Schengen countries. This trend is also common among Syrian refugees, who travel to Libya and then onwards to Malta and other Schengen countries where they hope to seek asylum.
The continued presence of the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM), which works with the Libyan government to develop capacity to secure its borders, is supported by Malta. Recently, the Maltese Home Affairs Minister proposed the opening of an EU-managed office in Libya, to consider asylum claims in an effort to stem the flow of migrants.
|Libyan Khaled Baara was granted asylum in Malta after he converted to Christianity [Courtesy: Khaled Baara/Al Jazeera]
Khaled Baara is a Libyan national who arrived in Malta in 1996. Currently unemployed, he told Al Jazeera: "Young Libyans are flocking to Malta following the 17 February revolution, due to its closeness and easy visas. They work as labourers and waiters here."
Baara has tried to obtain Maltese residency several times, marrying a Maltese national, carrying out felonies and even injuring himself in order to prolong his stay, he said.
Baara, like other immigrants, has suffered from depression, living in detention centres and homeless shelters. "Libyans are given the lowest priority here in terms of jobs. African migrants are treated better as fellow Christians," Baara said.
Ali Tabar also overstayed his Maltese visa. Despite having a university degree, he has worked as a carpenter and cleaner in Malta. "The single biggest problem we face in Malta is getting work," Tabar said.
Maria Grech, a Maltese youth and community support worker who helps Libyan families settle in and work on their English language skills, told Al Jazeera that while many Libyans come to Malta to study, "others are causing trouble here." The Libyan and Maltese governments recently signed a contract worth $31m for an educational project in Ta' Giorni to support Libyan students learning English and vocational skills in Malta.
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Libyan-Maltese ties also have an economic dimension, with evident benefits to the small European island.
At a "Doing Business in Libya" seminar in March, the Maltese foreign minister noted that Libya possesses "substantial reserves of fossil fuels and also has significant import requirements". Last year’s agreement offering Malta preferential rates on energy products from Libya, including crude and refined oil, was described by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as "crucial for the wellbeing of the relationship between the two countries".
With the security situation remaining tenuous, Malta also provides a safe domestic base for expat staff and families. Likewise, many companies use Malta as their "back office" for joint ventures and to access the lucrative Libyan market.
Libya has also taken steps to nurture its nascent private sector since the fall of Gaddafi. This has contributed to an increase in trade between Libya and Malta, from $118.3m before the revolution in 2010, to $247.2m in 2013 - a positive sign for their partnership in the years ahead.