Malta, an embryo for change

The Maltese are discussing an initiative to create a ‘super’ coastguard agency by pooling European resources. I suspect this is probably the first step to a controlled frontier at Fortress Europe’s Southern flank.

The Maltese islands are once again facing an incoming diaspora of immigrants travelling from North Africa, who enter Maltese waters in ramshackle vessels after having spent days tracing a Mediterranean route scribbled on a map. In Malta, when the number of migrants goes beyond the 500-600 mark, the government announces an emergency situation.

As the migration phenomenon becomes a more visible reality for the Maltese, questions are being asked on what sort of obligations these people are owed from a small country like Malta, gripped as it is by its own economic problems. An island known for its chauvinist tendencies towards those from south of the border, the escalating rate of unemployment leaves fertile grounds for discontent. Even the Left in Malta displays traits of xenophobia, and the foreigner remains the number one threat to workers in the political discourse of the Malta Labour Party and the General Workers Union.

In Malta, as in the rest of Europe, employers take on cheap, foreign labour from immigrants who have no right to work or live, and so no rights for an honest wage. The exploitation tends to be most notorious in the construction industry. The employment of low-cost illegal migrants fuels popular resentment and misconceptions of ‘Maltese’ jobs being stolen by foreigners. The appearance of an extreme right-wing force led by the Norman Lowell, who garnered 1 600 odd votes at the European Parliament elections, has given vent to pent-up feelings of hatred and displeasure towards Arabs and Africans who arrive in Malta.
Maltese society has always lingered between the chauvinism of a borderline nation at the crossroads of civilisations and the compassion of Catholicism and conservative solidarity. The axiom generates a difficult balance: international and domestic legal obligations confirm our duty to assist asylum seekers but racial misconceptions and other stereotypes compound our fear of cultural infi ltration.

Conservative approaches to migration, as those employed by the present government and also supported by the Labour Opposition, aim to present the public with a “tough” image on the way illegal immigration is handled. It’s a mix between politically-correct compassion and a law-andorder approach, averting fears that the state could be going soft on immigration, which tends to be associated with crime, drug trafficking and also terrorism. By containing ‘the problem’, less breathing space is allowed for extreme right-wing forces to vent destructive propaganda on the issue where resentment exists.

Irrespective of containment, for periods of anything between six to over twelve months, asylum seekers will wait to be interviewed by the Refugee Commission, which in turn is faced with the daunting task of collecting information on applicants in order to verify if there is a genuine case to award refugee status or temporary humanitarian status: it is also a lengthy process, as communication with countries with infrastructures crippled by civil strife and poverty represents a remarkable ordeal.

Malta’s detention camps have been widely criticised for the crammed conditions in which detainees are housed, which has led to riots by protesting detainees and also to the internment of asylum seekers in Mt Carmel Hospital to be treated for mental illness. Reports on the lack of privacy, recreational time, reading material, and unsatisfactory amenities would be later confirmed in the visit by Council of Europe Commissioner for Refugees Alvaro Gil-Robles, whose outright judgement on the camps was that they were “totally inadequate”.

The lengthy trial to process applications for refugee status and the dire conditions at the detention camps have done little to assuage the problems which occur from time to time. As overcrowding, boredom and frustration lead to riots, popular empathy for asylum seekers starts dissipating as violent reactions are misinterpreted as gestures of “ingratitude” towards their host country.

Despite criticism towards the shortcomings of the system, the Gil-Robles report met a cool reception by Minister Tonio Borg, who stuck to his guns on the detention policy. There are no effective structures to cater for the migration phenomenon. There are no trained people, only police, to deal with migrants and asylum seekers, and not enough staff at the Refugee Commission.

The Global Reality
Circumstances – historical, political and economic – are in fact the sole determining force beyond the control of the Maltese authorities. Malta remains the first landing spot for hundreds of immigrants intercepted by Italian and Maltese forces at sea. It would seem that the phenomenon cannot be averted, irrespective of the deterrent of detention.

There are many misconceptions on the numbers of refugees arriving into Europe. Only 10 per cent of refugees try to get into Europe; the vast majority of refugees seek shelter from one poor country to another. In the Darfur region, one million people at risk are escaping to Chad, another very poor nation.
Global poverty, at the heart of a worsening picture of the entire African continent, is still one of the number one factors informing migration towards Europe. Since the age of decolonisation, the African continent has grappled with the erratic distribution of power in the hands of tribal warlords, militias and dictators.

Its economic relations with the impenetrable Western world and the Soviet Union were most fruitful when Africa was buying scud missiles, fighter jets, and AK47s at the expense of its nation’s more pressing needs. In the 1970s however, the US started overspending and resorted to printing more dollars, resulting in a sharp fall in the value of the dollar all over the world.

Since oil was priced in dollars, the oil-producing countries reacted by raising the price of oil in 1973.
As the billions from the price increase were stashed in western banks, interest rates crashed. Banks started lending out money to Third World countries that wanted to maintain development and meet the rising cost of oil at the same time – the result today is the impossibly irrevocable global debt of USD65 billion in Africa alone.

Migration traditionally traces the route in search for high food-supply areas; today that is translated into the search for a better living where there is none, and in Africa that has been earmarked by poverty, the lack of access to potable water, and civil strife. It follows that the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor is only endemic to greater migration from poor regions to the rich regions like Europe.
As a new report on setting up a super Mediterranean coastguard concedes, more migrants will be attracted into Europe to “sustain the latter’s economies” as Europe’s population decreases and those in Africa and Asia increase, expectedly by over 25 per cent by 2015, according to the World Bank; a further 40 per cent of the world’s population will not have access to potable water.

Malta’s role
The heart of the matter is that the migration question is an EU-wide problem that has to be tackled by all 25 Member States. Strict immigration regulations push migrants to put themselves in the hands of criminal organisations who will smuggle them into a country for the price of USD1000 per head.
The Mediterranean today has become a burial ground for those migrants who are smuggled by sea and then thrown overboard by the smugglers who fear they will be caught by police authorities. Sometimes they are crammed into a smaller boat and left off to drift in the middle of the sea.

The Maltese are discussing the creation of a Mediterranean Coastguard Agency that would tackle, amongst other things, migration control. According to the drafters of the report, Malta is being targeted as a destination for asylum now that it has become an EU member, not least due to being part of the Schengen zone.

It would seem apparent that the EUCG would ultimately be Malta’s alternative to the EUR6 millionfunded EU Border Agency, an initiative first unveiled back in 2003, for which Malta also applied to host. It is expected the EU will favour Poland or Hungary, whose borders lie on the outermost of the bloc’s Eastern flank, concentrating mainly on land migration.

European civil liberties and justice network Statewatch has accused the EU of trying to create an EU border police at the union’s outermost frontiers, acting as an expulsions agency. The EU has so far considered, amongst other plans, Tony Blair’s “safe havens” – UN “protection areas” erected in countries next to states which generate human traffic. “To envisage such a plan is to imagine ghettoes created by the world’s most peaceful and richest countries in some of the world’s poorest and most unstable regions,” wrote The Guardian’s Raekha Prasad in 2003.

In fact, it is one way of actually ‘exporting’ popular resentment towards immigrants, if that is in any way possible. Blair hopes to have would-be asylum seekers apply for asylum in third countries at the borders of Europe, before being allowed inside the country of asylum: a direct incompatibility with the fundamental right to seek and enjoy asylum enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Alternattiva Demokratika Zghazagh will challenge all attempts at creating clearing houses which deny asylum seekers the right of applying for refugee status in democratic countries. The 1951 Geneva Convention has to stand and must not be endangered by the leaders of Fortress Europe. It is a challenge that has to be met by both Malta and the EU, both in the provision of suitable detention centres that will accommodate asylum seekers, and to address global poverty, the world debt, and the political problems of the Third World.

The European continent built empires out of the riches it prised away from the Third World; today migrants are pointing towards the North to escape from the poverty of the Third World also left behind by the developed world. A historical equalisation is at work and this is the challenge, which even a small island like Malta, has to face.

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