The Malta Independent 23 September 2019, Monday

Forty-nine souls

Mark A. Sammut Thursday, 10 January 2019, 09:16 Last update: about 10 months ago

The issues involved in the question of the 49 souls on board the Sea-Watch 3 and the Professor Albrecht Penck are numerous, but they can be categorised under three headings: petty politics, politics, and humanitarianism.

Petty politics

Clearly the Prime Minister is running after votes. He wants to avoid giving the impression that Malta is ready to take in waves of immigrants. He wants other countries to share the burden.

This makes sense. The question obviously is: at the cost of 49 human lives?

As I will argue in the second part, I am not too happy with African (Sub-Saharan) migration into Europe, be it legal or illegal. But that does not mean that I can condone 49 lives being sacrificed to make a political point, and a petty one at that.


(With a capital P.)

It is clear to many that this migration phenomenon conceals big business interests. There are those who Deputy Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvini calls scafisti, the organisers of the crossings, who have turned migration into a lucrative business.

But then there is also the phenomenon highlighted by Italian philosopher Diego Fusaro who argues that the influx of African migrants dilutes past achievements of European labour movements.

Fusaro argues that this happens on two levels. First, African migrants accept to work for less remuneration than European workers, for €3 an hour, say, instead of €10. This obviously means significant savings for certain businesses, as well as an increase in the pressure exerted on salaries paid to European workers.

Second, African migrants are unaware of the achievements of European labour movements over the decades. By accepting working conditions that are inferior to those acquired by the labour movements, African migrants unwittingly weaken the position of the workers, again passing on precious benefits to unscrupulous businesses and enterprises. The influx of African migrants can undo the hard work of trade unionists and other exponents of the workers’ movement.

Obviously, the Left is too busy with “civil rights” and other distractions, and it no longer keeps its eye on the labour ball. Workers thus start gravitating toward the Extreme Right, and populism. The blame for the rise of the Extreme Right lies squarely with the Left that lost its soul without gaining the world (consider former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzo).

In ‘Fortress Malta’, Joseph Muscat has had the intuition of combining the anti-immigrant siege mentality with “civil rights” sorties, thus catering for two “clients” at the same time: the workers (Labour’s traditional support base) and the liberals (Labour’s new support base).

My own personal little addition is the following. I note that many, if not all, of those employed in garbage collection are African migrants; these have obviously replaced Maltese workers. So what work are those Maltese now doing? It is self-evident that collecting garbage bags while running behind a Scammell lorry does not require a University degree. So the questions are: what are those Maltese now doing, and are all those African migrants of the same intellectual level of the Maltese they have replaced? If they are not, aren’t we fomenting resentment by giving them demeaning jobs, far inferior to their intellectual capabilities?

However, the big problem is that because of the influx of African migrants, the Labour Movement risks losing its historic achievements. The consequences might be dire.


This is the tricky part, because it is in the point where politics, law, and philosophy intersect.

In its bare essence, the point is when and how do we acquire rights: by being born inside a State? Do we have rights outside of a State? Do our rights depend on their recognition by a State or do they depend on our humanity?

On this point I am in part indebted to a book published in 1995, which has now become a classic of contemporary political philosophy: Giorgio Agamben’s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life.

Agamben borrows the difference made by Aristotle between zoe (“bare life”) and bios (“qualified life”). Zoe becomes bios through the State. It is participation in the State, in the political body, that transforms “bare life” into the “qualified life”, which is ultimately the “good life”. But – and therein lies the rub – it is the State, the Sovereign, that decides who is and who is not to participate in the political body.

The Nazi State, for instance, had decided, for a number of convoluted reasons, that the Jews could not participate in the political body; they were thus reduced to zoe, “bare life”, which, in this logic, could be eliminated without raising ethical objections.

It is important to note that both “bare life” and “qualified life” are human – but “bare life” does not participate in political life, and therefore lies outside the sovereignty of the State, and outside the protection granted by that sovereignty.

This is the predicament of the 49 migrants waiting in Malta’s waters like souls in purgatory. They have been relegated to “bare life”, human life which does not enjoy the protection granted by the Sovereign. They are pawns in a bigger (but petty) political game. Their right to live seems not to exist because they are not citizens of the State in whose lap they have happened to land (though, surely, they would like to land on its shores).

What we are witnessing is the tension between human being and citizen. The State’s respect for its citizens’ rights is mandatory; that for non-citizen human beings is discretionary.


‘Life is life’

I was happy to see Tonio Fenech (representing Catholic Voices Malta) and representatives of Christian Life Community among the 40 organisations putting pressure on the Government to change tack and let the migrants in. One hopes that Aditus and other organisations understand that you cannot be in favour of saving the lives of African migrants while clamouring for the introduction of abortion.

Life is always life, and its protection by the State is not limited to African migrants.

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