Though anti-immigrant sentiment runs high in Malta, a tiny island in the Mediterranean, it’s not stopping citizens from reflecting on the humanitarian disaster reflected in the deaths of 1,500 refugees fleeing to Europe so far this year.
A woman lays a candle by the sea during a candle light vigil in Sliema, in the outskirts of Valletta, Malta, Wednesday, April 22, 2015. A smuggler’s boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off the coast of Libya on Saturday as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean’s deadliest known migrant tragedy. The burial ceremony of the 24 rescued bodies will take place in Malta Thursday.
RABAT, Malta — A boat carrying over 900 migrants capsized in the Mediterranean in mid-April, bringing the total death toll among refugees attempting to reach Europe to 1,500 so far this year. In Malta, the small island nation that has been heavily involved in search and rescue efforts following recent shipwrecks, an unprecedented turnout for an All Lives Matter candlelight vigil reverberated internationally.
Anti-immigrant sentiment runs high on the island and constitutes a major talking point for the two main political parties. Indeed, largely absent from local media coverage of the April 22 vigil were the voices of the refugees themselves. The Times of Malta carried a brief quote from an Eritrean migrant: “This is a ray of hope — all the world is watching.”
Yet the vigil reflected a previously underestimated sense of urgency for the need to deal with the humanitarian aspects of migrants attempting to flee a number of strife-torn countries, including Syria and Libya, via the Mediterranean Sea.
The Times of Malta reported that about 1,000 people participated in the candlelight vigil, which included a walk from Spinola Bay, St. Julians, to Exiles in Sliema, where participants placed candles on the rocks. According to the Facebook event page, those candles were still burning early the next morning.
Maltese President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca attended the vigil, along with representatives from both the government and the opposition. Also in attendance was U.S. Ambassador to Malta Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley — an envoy of the country directly responsible for creating a failed state out of Libya, which, in turn, has contributed to the increased number of Libyan migrants drowning while attempting to flee to Europe.
Targeting the traffickers
Meanwhile, as the vigil was organized in Malta, unprecedented public pressure following last month’s tragedy and other similar incidents prompted European officials to assemble an emergency summit to discuss proposals which largely aim to crack down on smuggling rings.
Prior to joining his European counterparts at the summit, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat told reporters: “The proposals are a rehash of what we’ve heard in the past. What’s different is there’s more political willingness. There’s a changed political climate. Is it enough? It is never enough.”
When asked whether he felt the EU had let Malta down, he said: “It’s letting human beings down.”
Instead of addressing historical issues of colonialism and the more recent NATO intervention in Libya, which led to the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and a violent aftermath exacerbated by militias and the spread of Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS), the EU is taking aim at smuggling networks.
This focus was articulated by EU Representative Federica Mogherini, who stated that this effort is a regional and global responsibility to find “ways of cooperating with all Libyans to face this threat and to find ways of working together in preventing this spreading even more in the territory.”
The Draft European Council Statement published by Statewatch indicates another militarized approach on behalf of the EU, disguised as a humanitarian effort. According to the document, the EU is committed to strengthening its presence at sea, fighting the trafficking network, preventing “illegal immigration flows,” and reinforcing international solidarity.
While acknowledging that most of the responsibility is placed upon external border states such as Malta, Italy and Greece, Dr. Maria Pisani, one of the organizers of the vigil, insists that targeting traffickers will only force migrants to shift their trajectories. Hence, the political charade of condolences and emergency meetings will only serve to consolidate ongoing human rights violations.
Pisani told MintPress:
“For all their emergency meetings and condolences, the message remains entirely the same: If you risk your life by getting on a boat, we will increase our efforts to save you. But we will do nothing to prevent you from having to risk your life in the first place. The onus on securitization and containment remains steadfast, while the focus on destroying smugglers’ networks will do very little beyond, in the short-term, perpetuating the horror that migrants and refugees are experiencing in Libya (with no way out).”
Migrants in Malta also face additional forms oppression both from the state and society. Discrimination occurs on various fronts, including labor exploitation. Pisani highlighted the lack of long-term security for asylum seekers in Malta:
“Upon arrival they are placed in detention. Upon release they must navigate their lives on an island where the vast majority of them do not want to be, and where they are not wanted. While the majority are granted protection, they do not have the right to apply for citizenship, to family reunification, or to moving to another EU member state.
This, coupled with racism and material deprivation, has contributed to lives lived in limbo, suspended and on the margins.”
“The value of humanity”
The April 22 vigil was organized by Dr. Duncan Mercieca, the head of the Department of Education Studies and senior lecturer of Philosophy of Education at the University of Malta, and Pisani, who lectures on Youth and Community Studies at the University of Malta and serves as director of the Integra Foundation, an independent nonprofit human rights project.
Mercieca explained that the event “started out of profound questioning regarding the value of humanity.”
“How can I, as a human being, deal with the issue of people dying so close to our shores? The migrants’ deaths forces questions about acknowledging the fragility of life and how we are in constant danger of losing that sense of fragility and vulnerability,” he said.
Describing the initial idea for a vigil as being “born out of humanity,” Mercieca explained, “It started as a brief thing among colleagues and word spread through social media — I was taken by surprise at the turnout.”
Talking about the discrepancy between the compassion exhibited during the vigil and the usually negative sentiment expressed by a segment of the Maltese population in social media discussions on migrants, Mercieca points out some currents that hold sway over society:
“Death worries people, so this time the reaction was deeper, taking into account the proximity. However, we can also see manifestations of neoliberal society attitudes. What is going to shake us? There were academics present in the march, but it was not a substantial number. I also see racism in our prospective teachers. They knew about the vigil, but again, there was no definite presence. I think this takes us back to the danger of losing that connection with reality. Life is also about brevity — there is always something that pushes things aside. Migrants have drowned, but if we don’t remind ourselves, we are risking another scenario where things will pass. Additional symbolism which translates into we want to forget because we want to be comfortable again.”
Louise Chircop, a teacher and Ph.D. candidate researching educators’ constructions of society, also noted the presence of the education community, saying she was “pleasantly surprised” to see that schools had sent floral arrangements to the vigil and organized their own memorials for the victims.
Yet she also noted that she also didn’t think that a single school had sent a representative to the vigil — something that was particularly evident among universities and academics at that level. “This is not the same as saying there were no teachers and students, but those who were there went in their own capacity as citizens,” Chircop told MintPress.
She sees this as a missed opportunity to educate beyond the classroom. “I believe that this was an ideal way in which to help students foster the value of solidarity,” she told MintPress. “Schools organize events for local charities, why not participate in an event that goes beyond the needs of Maltese citizens?”