The Malta Independent 25 October 2020, Sunday

Caught in the middle

Rachel Borg Saturday, 23 June 2018, 08:29 Last update: about 3 years ago

We are back to calling them immigrants now.  And the “illegal” is just a little space away from creeping in.  Time and management have allowed some breathing space into the mix of refugees, by land or sea, and sifted through the boat loads of those crossing the Mediterranean sea, through the services of traffickers from Libya or other shores, together with a more robust processing system which helps to identify the country of origin and the asylum claims made.


One might say that there is a kind of passport now, for those who reach the NGO rescue boats and the EU patrol ships.  These latter ships are able to take on large numbers.  The centres for processing of the new arrivals and their application is set up in Sicily and Italy, nearby and even then, they find it hard to cope with the amount of applicants.

This system was decided upon by EU member states when they sought a way to deal with the heavy influx of persons seeking residence or safety from war, in Europe.  To expect one of these large ships, as opposed to a fishing boat which has collected a dozen persons from a sinking dinghy, to keep off-loading the high number of rescues to Malta is just unrealistic. 

First of all, the ships are identified and are in communication with their counterparts in Italy or Spain and life would only be made difficult for the immigrants and the crew to seek permission and entry into a Maltese port.  The former Italian Prime Minister, Mateo Renzi and Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat must have known this and although nothing was presented to Parliament, a kind of gentleman’s agreement must have been reached which did not leave all the burden on Italy without having compensation in one way or another from Malta.  But, nothing was signed so we have no way of knowing and in the meantime Salvini/Di Maio and the Italian journalists can play with this like a cat tossing a dead mouse about.

It is to be clear that Malta too, never opted out of the obligations it has at sea and in monitoring its SAR area.  In practical terms, one of the reasons that the EU search and rescue service was put in place was in response to the disproportionate number of immigrants that Malta was receiving. 

All Europe, except Italy it seems, knows how our small island is densely populated and currently facing a housing crisis.  If we want to build a road we have to pull out our trees.  It’s that bad for space here.  In other less densely populated countries, they have room they can utilise and declining population that they compensate for.  Malta, on the other hand, has a growing population.

In a union such as the European Union, every country should contribute and participate according to its strengths.  Currently Malta is able to offer employment to many EU citizens, not least Italians and Sicilians.  It also provides opportunity for foreign businesses to start up here.  That is also a benefit enjoyed by citizens, under the Maastricht Treaty, to provide closer economic union. 

The current political show-down in Italy, with the election of the new Government there, is for their own consumption and their hatred of Renzi.  It is very silly therefore for Salvini and Di Maio to stay bringing Malta into the mix like a ball to kick around.  Perhaps it takes their mind off their absence at the World Cup and they are trying to score some own goals.

The latest spat from Di Maio about the electricity that Malta utilises and purchases from the European grid is totally banal and he may have got some dressing down from Salvini to show a more aggressive attitude on the subject of immigration and couldn’t be bothered to look further than a populist line from some internet comment.

If Italy and its new government have serious intentions towards dealing once and for all with the major problem of immigrants landing on their shores, they should show more political maturity.  Another elephant in the room for them is the Mafia that has long been profiting from the traffickers’ business.  So they need both a domestic solution and an EU solution.  Picking on Malta and its SAR area is childish and shows that they are just trying to pin the donkey.  Perhaps the problem is too big for Salvini right now and he too is splashing away and waiting for rescue.

On the African side, much of the problem with the economy there has to do with wars, displacement of people and internal refugees, climate change and most of all, corruption.

We know how corruption distorts freedom and growth, two things that society, no matter how under-developed it is, seeks.  Every individual has a sense of values in this regard.  They want the opportunity to live in good health and have a family and participate in the community by contributing and becoming a legitimate citizen.  Unfortunately, the corruption that has invaded the governments of so many countries denies its’ nationals the chance of realising their hopes, by taking away from them the means and equality needed to build a life.

The corruption is not limited to Africa as we so well know, even here in our own island.  Europe itself is not without blame and should also take responsibility for having kept African countries from developing in order to keep their market advantage and allowing the big multi-corporations to hold them back except in some small way of offering employment.

In many socio-economic areas the EU has removed barriers and opened society and borders.  But it keeps its frontier borders as the European Union.  Italy, Spain, Malta, Greece are first to confront the new arrivals seeking life in Europe.  The decision to be made is not one about how to handle refugees and immigrants. It is about the frontier.  How important today is Europe’s frontier?  Globalisation has made a small place of the world.  So many barriers have been removed – although today we see the USA bringing them back – but some psychological frontier still exists in the mind of people and is more of a tool for trade purposes than it is for physical movement.  In that awful 2015 Summer of mass migration over Europe, countries like Hungary actually built a wire fence to clearly define its borders.  For them the frontier was not Europe’s but their own national border.  This works out as a contradiction of terms when it comes to free movement in Europe.  The reality was laid bare and countries like Britain became nervous and quickly moved to close shop. 

Europe hates being distracted from business, trade and industry.  These immigration issues that won’t go away are nothing but a nuisance and leaders were previously used to coming to some agreeable terms about how to ignore it.  Now it is at a massive scale and is predicted to keep on growing.  This is not just something that can be discussed over a lavish lunch, some good wine and a back-slap here and there. 

Italy’s Batman and Robin do well to insist on tackling the problem.  Dumping on Malta is certainly not going to solve it though.  Neither would leaving the EU or crossing the Vatican.  First on the agenda should be tackling corruption.  Second, border policy.  Thirdly, a moratorium for those border countries that have handled a high proportion of immigration until corridors and processing centres over Europe are established and functioning properly, taking the economy, the sovereign right of countries to decide if they want to allow multi-culturalism and percentage of population into account.  Humanity, too, cannot be excluded from the equation if Europe is to live in peace.  This, after all, is a founding principle of the Union.


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