MALTA — (Report) The standoff in June between Malta and Italy over the fate of over 600 migrants on board the Aquarius — a rescue boat operated by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) — made headline news for the wrong reasons. As both countries prioritized populist rhetoric, with Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat refusing to open their ports to Aquarius, voluntary intervention by the Spanish government ensured the migrants’ safety after days of being stranded at sea.
Unresolved, however, were the deeper implications of the incident and the brew of double-standards and hypocrisies it brought to light. The European Union scrambled to find common ground over migrants using the Mediterranean as their trajectory. However, it joined the ranks of Salvini and Muscat, taking issue with non governmental organizations in their efforts to rescue migrants in the Mediterranean. Far from opposing the right-wing rhetoric that has now infiltrated the entire political spectrum, the EU chose to uphold a punitive stance against migrants, many of whom hail from sub-Saharan Africa and are fleeing the long-term consequences of war, poverty and plunder. Libya, which has become a main departure point for those seeking to escape, is a hub of torture, trafficking and exploitation that the international community aided in creating. Following a summit in Brussels, the EU criticized NGOs that rescued migrants at sea and proposed measures that would keep migrants away from the bloc. It discussed setting up processing centres in North Africa and, for migrants who manage to reach Europe, “controlled areas” for processing. According to the European Commission’s President Donald Tusk, the proposals would form “the most effective mechanism to break the smugglers’ business model — to discourage migrants and smugglers [from taking] this very risky route using vessels on the Mediterranean Sea.”
By focusing solely on migrants and human trafficking, the EU has eliminated the colonial and imperialist background that created refugees and the Mediterranean as a trajectory for migrants. With the Arab Spring and Libya’s disintegration distanced by seven years, the EU, like other international organizations, is in a position to distance itself from the foreign intervention that transformed Libya into a failed state and a hub for human-rights violations.
Unsurprisingly, UN-affiliated agencies have “welcomed” the EU deal — as conveyed by this statement from the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC):
We will welcome any outcome from Europe that leads to a more collaborative and harmonised approach to asylum, and also one that has at its core and priority saving lives at sea.”
Lest it be forgotten, the UN adopted Resolution 1973 on February 26, 2011, which authorized NATO intervention in Libya. To analyze the current EU framework that builds upon the existing racist and anti-migrant sentiment, it is necessary to look back at recent history and understand that, with their current policies, the EU and the UN are united in their primary aim: to shift accountability away from the organizations as aggressors.
Both the UN and the EU refuse to link NATO intervention to the outcome of Libya as a failed state. This has allowed the EU to promote Libya as a safe haven for migrants, despite its cycle of human-rights violations and its reputation as a trafficking hub. In turn, just as the earlier colonization attempts are not linked to the exploitation of African and Arab countries, the EU is repeating the same process of aiding in destabilizing countries while refusing responsibility.
On the EU-proposed disembarkation points, Leonard Doyle from the UN’s International Organization for Migration stated that “any solution needs to be a European solution.”
While both the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) expressed concern about the perils for migrants in Libya, the statements omitted the fact that “European solutions,” as described by Doyle, will be carried out according to the EU’s vested political interests, as opposed to international law and humanitarian concerns.
Under the veneer of an electoral slogan
In Malta, with the exception of activists and NGOs, calls for humanitarian assistance were isolated. Nationalist Party and opposition leader Adrian Delia expressed a similar stance to that of Muscat. In an article penned by Delia and published in the Times of Malta, he described the Maltese as “united in our stance in defence of the national interest.” The national interest and sentiment, however, appear to be driven by an unfortunate double standard when it comes to sorting out who is welcome in Malta and who is not.
The electoral campaign slogan “L-Aqwa Zmien” (The Best Times) still echoes among the people, at a time when foreign investment in Malta is generating a veneer of economic stability. Yet the same investment has also generated inflated home prices and rents, leaving segments of the Maltese population in a struggle to make ends meet as the system has adapted to cater to elite newcomers. Little discontent is communicated regarding the influx of such immigration. However, the 629 “non-elite” immigrants on board the Aquarius were largely perceived as a threat to the island.
Anna Azzopardi, Deputy General Secretary and spokeswoman for civil rights of Malta’s Green Party, Alternattiva Demokratika (AD), spoke to MintPress about the Maltese government’s politics that prioritize profit over humanitarian action:
It is ironic because we have two scenarios. The government is insisting that the country needs more foreign workers, and is selling citizenship to anyone who has the necessary capital. On the other hand, the needs of the people in dire straits are being ignored, because the populist waves are directed towards feeding a cycle of hatred. Thus money and power are winning over the necessity to take care of basic human needs.”
The standoff between Malta and Italy reveals that migrants are becoming a common ground uniting the center-left and the right wing. The diplomatic bickering between the countries over responsibility to offer safety was largely supported by the people, fuelled by the racism that has been steadily rising in recent years.
One such recent example was recorded and published by the Times of Malta when the MV Lifeline refused to hand over rescued migrants to Libya and remained stranded for days before Muscat agreed to let the ship dock in Senglea and subjected it to an investigation on allegations of going “against international rules.”
In the clip, a child is heard shouting slogans as directed by her mother –”Go back to your country!” — in a show of the anti-migrant sentiment that is steadily gaining ground on the island.
MV Lifeline’s captain, Claus Peter Resich, was arraigned in court on July 2 and released on bail. The accusation he faces is “having steered the ship within Maltese territorial waters without the necessary registrations and license.” While Resich was allowed an interpreter, Magistrate Joseph Mifsud turned down a request for the hearing to be conducted in English.
Azzopardi comments on racism in Malta, within the context of the government’s promoting of profit over humanitarian needs:
The government’s economic programme has resulted in a [vicious cycle]. In the past ten years or so, racism has increased in Malta. The government decided to feed on this racism to gain political momentum and further ignite the fire to suit its populist agenda.”
Within Maltese society, there are parallels that are being ignored. Blinkered allegiances to political parties — a trait that shows little sign of waning — furthers the opportunity for government to rally support for its courting of business deals, such as the investments of gaming companies in Malta, and the citizenship sales, which have contributed to inflated rent and property prices. Meanwhile, the average wages in Malta have not picked up, with the result that many families are spending most of their income on rent. The rise in property prices has also made it harder for many to consider taking out a loan to put a roof over their heads.
Although the government is catering to the influx of foreigners who are settling in Malta with higher wages than those of the average Maltese, anti-immigrant sentiment on the island does not consider thousands of affluent foreign workers contributing to the inflated real-estate prices as a threat. Yet, hundreds of migrants stranded at sea have united a large segment of the people repeating a common phrase: “Malta cannot take in any more migrants.”
Dr. Louise Chircop — a researcher and educator specializing in religion, citizenship, social diversity and the politics of education — describes how politics influences the prevailing racist attitude in Malta:
The concept that Malta cannot take in any more migrants is a contradiction. Recently the Prime Minister said that Malta needed thousands of foreign workers. He was careful to use the term ‘migrants’ — the implication being that the workers will do the jobs and leave. However, these workers bring their families over and many eventually settle in Malta. Then there are those who buy Maltese citizenship, which no one speaks about. It is clear that ‘there is no more space’ only applies to migrants who come in by boats.”
In Malta, party politics carries more importance than the actual social conditions. This has enabled racism to spread its roots. As the political parties build their rhetoric upon the already-existing fears among the people of migrants as “different,” there is a strong agreement between the government and the people in excluding migrants.
Besides the main political parties, smaller far-right wing groups have also been attracting a following. Their social media pages have not been shut down, Chircop points out, despite inciting hatred and violence.
Chircop explains how government decisions have consolidated the perception of African migrants as undesirable outsiders:
The stances taken by the political parties: sending migrants back, the pushback policy, not allowing them to enter the ports, as well a the discourse which is uttered at EU and local level, have influenced the uncritical public into thinking that there is a veritable invasion of ‘boat people,’ that there is no space for them, that they are too culturally different from us and that they are criminals. Time and again black people have been arrested in Marsa, despite not committing any crimes.”
Clearly, all political parties, including the government, are building upon the existing resentment to entrench divisions. Azzopardi explains:
The government is using the tactics of divide and conquer. Rents are increasing and the cost of living in Malta is blown out of control. But the blame falls upon the low-paid foreigner — not just boat migrants — who is just another victim.”
People escape from both war and famine. Climate change has contributed to a dwindling agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. Further south, slave economy, such as diamonds and cocoa farming are exploiting and keeping people in poverty. These humanitarian crises are fodder for the human trafficking business. A real, human-centred solution would start by tackling these issues at the root. However, the unfortunate reality is that these issues are ignored and put aside. The only accountability that is being pursued is directed towards gaining votes.”
Southern Italy’s mayors united in a political stance
The mayors of Palermo, Naples, Messina, and Reggio Calabria in the south of Italy openly defied Salvini’s stance, declaring their ports open to Aquarius. Naples Mayor Luigi De Magistris and Palermo Mayor Leoluca Orlando both issued statements on social media criticising Salvini’s rhetoric.
The bickering that made headline news was based upon retribution. On July 28, Salvini tweeted: “Is Malta closing its ports to foreign NGO boats? Good, this means we have been right, we will not back down. Stop human trafficking, stop those who help the stowaways.” The hashtag used, “#stopinvazione” (stop invasions), however, underlines the prevalent right-wing sentiment.
Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, explained to MintPress the stance taken by himself and other Italian mayors, which MSF had declared to be “nice but not practical:”
I have had a working relationship with the MSF and other NGOs dealing with migration issues and search and rescue (SAR) for many years. There is both practical and political support. When I say political, I am not linking the organizations to any specific political party, but I want to underline that nowadays there is always a clear political and cultural issue in relation to migration and migrants.
The stance to ‘open the harbors,’ expressed by myself and other mayors in Italy, is evidently a political stance. By law, mayors do not have the power to open nor close the port, which is considered a strategic national infrastructure and, as such, under the control of the national government. But our stance made it clear that there is no consensus and neither an Italian majority, on Salvini’s position.”
Echoing the official positions of Malta and Italy, Orlando maintains that Italy “has been left almost alone during the last years to face the flow of migrants and welcome them.” Ironically, he comments that it is the only point upon which he is in concordance with the right-wing leader.
However, he clarifies various issues of contention as regards responsibility and EU failures in tackling migration:
Where I’m not in accordance with Mr Salvini is on who has the responsibility, inside European institutions, for such a situation. The responsibility is, above all, of the far-right governments of Hungary and other countries that have always refused to accept migrants according to EU agreements. This is a long-standing problem.”
Malta and Italy, he says, cannot be put on a par in regards to hosting capacity:
“Malta has a total population which is [less than] half of Palermo’s. Its hosting capabilities cannot be compared with the Italian ones. The mere geographical position cannot be considered as the base for these decisions; otherwise Spain, Italy, Greece and Malta should be left alone in facing migration flow.”
Yet, he insists:
Starting from the fact that migration flows will not stop, no matter how many walls or detention centers will be built, Europe as a whole has to take responsibility for a fair, human and convenient-for-all solution.”
Orlando refers to a document known as the Charter of Palermo, which was signed in 2015 by lawyers, human rights experts, NGOs, activists and politicians:
In the document we stated that the right to mobility is a fundamental human right. How is it possible that in our contemporary globalized world, everything can move freely except for human beings? Data can freely move globally through the internet. Goods can freely move around the globe. Money and capital can be transferred in seconds. It is only human beings that are denied the right to move freely. Is this the globalized world we want to live in?”
The Charter of Palermo also discusses freedom of movement. According to the document, Orlando explains, the visa and permits to stay should be abolished: “Note — it is not the abolition of the passport, which is a symbol of belonging to a community — but the abolition of the limitation of movement of human beings.”
Our proposal is not a “humanitarian” one. We do not want people to have freedom of movement just because it is fun or sounds poetic. In our experience, in the concrete and actual experience of Palermo, a mix of cultures, an open city where migrants are welcomed and become part of the community, where people have the possibility to meet and share, the whole community grows in all ways.”
Palermo, he says, is the only southern big city that has experienced a decline in unemployment:
I think this is also connected to the policy of openness promoted by the municipality and the mayor at the local, national and international levels.”
There was a mixed reaction on Facebook following Orlando’s statement to open the port. In Palermo, however, statistics from 2017 show that the right-wing has not gained traction. Orlando observed:
In 2017, when I was confirmed as mayor on the first round of the elections, the candidate of Lega, Matteo Salvini’s far-right party, only got 1.6 percent of the votes. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Salvini’s aggressive policy and wording towards migrants and minorities is not appealing for part of the population, even here in Sicily.”
Orlando states that Palermo has evolved into a distinct reality from others as a result of his consistent stances against racist and populist positions:
This made it possible to open a debate, to talk away from the virtuality, to think beyond the stereotypes.”
Asked about the apparent contradiction of the EU as a purportedly peace-building institution that also supports the foreign intervention that has perpetuated the cycle of the displaced and refugees, Orlando pointed to a December 2017 document he submitted to the International Criminal Court that called for an investigation into the actual behavior of European bodies towards migrants. He concluded:
The easy and immediate answer to your question is that European institutions and their representatives have played a role, in this specific field, which blatantly violates the spirit and content of several EU funding and fundamental Charters.”
The EU’s parameters of exclusion
French President Emmanuel Macron has called for selectivity when it comes to accepting migrants — differentiating between economic migrants and those escaping war or persecution. Bloomberg quotes the French president thus: “If it’s an economic migrant, who doesn’t face danger in his country, then it’s not France’s responsibility to take him, nor Spain’s.”
The question EU leaders are evading is the root causes of migration. Historical colonial plunder of African countries is one reason. The Arab Spring and NATO intervention in the Middle East is another. Climate change, famines, slave labor and political oppression have all created different categories of refugees. Politically, a major share of the responsibility falls upon Western exploitation.
Yet, the EU, like other international institutions, is content with creating issues out of the political violence it helps inflict upon populations in African and Arab countries. The convenient solution is to create parameters to classify migrants as being worthy of safe haven or not.
Of the categories decided by the authorities, the economic migrants are despised more than others. Unlike those escaping war, these people are categorized as having made a free choice to leave. The emphasis upon the term “economic” has blinded people to the fact that being trafficked and risking a perilous journey does not constitute a free choice in terms of migration.
Diplomatically, the veneer works well for the EU. The reality — which the EU blatantly refuses to address to preserve its impunity at the expense of human lives — is that these categories, alongside the EU’s willingness to accommodate the right-wing, have resulted in a situation in which all migrants are being considered unworthy of rescue.
There is no escaping the fact that the “throw them back to Libya” attitude, fostered by governments and upheld by a considerable segment of the population, is prevailing.
Top Photo | Two activists sit on top of the 60-meter (197-feet) monument Christopher Columbus tower after placing a vest with the words “Open Arms” on the statue in Barcelona, Spain, Wednesday, July 4, 2018. Activists in Barcelona have dressed in an orange life-vest a statue of 15th-century explorer Christopher Columbus to turn attention to the loss of life of migrants and refugees in the Mediterranean Sea. Emilio Morenatti | AP
Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger. She writes about the struggle for memory in Palestine and Chile, historical legitimacy, the ramifications of settler-colonialism, the correlation between humanitarian aid and human rights abuses, the United Nations as an imperialist organisation, indigenous resistance, la nueva cancion Chilena and Latin American revolutionary philosophy with a particular focus on Fidel Castro, Jose Marti and Jose Carlos Mariategui. Her articles, book reviews, interviews, and blogs have been published in Middle East Monitor, Upside Down World, Truthout, Irish Left Review, Gramsci Oggi, Cubarte, Rabble.ca, Toward Freedom, History Today, Chileno and other outlets, including academic publications and translations into several languages