Over the past week I’ve found myself in two minds, and two hearts, about the migration matter. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it but I was shocked and not so shocked, surprised and not so surprised.

It turns out the reason is that there’s absolutely nothing new about what the government is saying and doing. There’s nothing original about it at all, it’s simply a replay of what Maltese governments have said and done since at least 2002.

Take the foreign minister’s solemn message a week ago. He told us that the situation in Libya was dire, that there were hundreds of thousands of African migrants ready to attempt the crossing to Europe  and that the stage was set for a major humanitarian disaster.

He also assured us that Malta had always done its best to help, except now all resources were caught up dealing with COVID-19. It was the EU’s responsibility to help us out and they could do so by sending aid to Libya and severing the human trafficking lines.

It’s all there, surgically taken apart by Ċetta Mainwaring in her excellent At Europe’s Edge. Anyone who is serious about migration should buy and read this book. Thing is, it was published in 2019 and is based on research data for the period 2002-2017. And yet, the foreign minister’s message could have come right out of its pages.

So the ports are closed to migrants and rescue missions unlikely. When have the ports ever been open and rescue missions likely, if not with extreme reluctance and foot-dragging? In 2007, 27 men were left clinging to a tuna pen in rough seas for three days, while Malta and Italy wrangled over who would rescue and disembark them. (They were eventually rescued by the Italian navy and taken to Lampedusa.)

Crisis and human rights abuse in Libya? Nothing new there, either. In 2009, the Jesuit Refugee Service published a thorough and deeply disturbing report about the situation in Libya. Conditions in the Libyan detention centres were terrible: beatings, torture and outright killings were standard procedure.

And yet, the Maltese and Italian governments were perfectly happy then to trust and even to fund Colonel Gaddafi to prevent migrants from leaving Libya. The foreign minister’s humanitarian disaster is old enough to remember three or four of his predecessors. It also remembers that they, like him, said there wasn’t much they could do about it, COVID-19 or no COVID-19.

When have the ports ever been open and rescue missions likely, if not with extreme reluctance and foot dragging?

Mainwaring’s analysis shows how migration from Africa was consistently portrayed and dealt with as a crisis, between 2002 and 2017. It looks at how Malta time and again summoned the arguments of smallness, overpopulation, limited resources and an unfair gatekeeping role to seek to transfer responsibility to its neighbours,  and to the EU more broadly.

If that sounds familiar, it’s because the government is saying and doing exactly that, right now. That the defence this time is COVID-19 is of no issue. So much so, that the prime minister has already said that the end of the pandemic will not change much. The last 18 years would suggest that he’s right.  

Make no mistake, what we’re looking at is simply the latest wave of standard rhetoric about African migration. There’s nothing Robert Abela or Evarist Bartolo have said that hadn’t been said to death before.   

So nothing new, then, but that doesn’t mean that what’s happening is of no consequence. Certainly it will affect the protagonists, badly, in at least two ways.

The pass-the-unwanted-parcel with the neighbours, the constant sparring with rescue NGOs, the reluctance to take full responsibility for rescue, the time spent discussing who should rescue how many and take them where, above all, the lack of proper channels of mobility that would make rescue redundant: all of this will continue to make the sea a dangerous place for migrants, just as it has for so many years.

Second, rhetoric is not ‘just words’. Some philosophers use the term ‘speech acts’ to describe words as actions – that is to say, they can and often do lead to tangible consequences. The rhetoric of crisis, contagion, overcrowding and threat will, at the very least, confine African migrants to the place they’ve always occupied.

It will continue to condemn them to the margins of society as transients and outsiders who do not and will never quite belong. It will keep them lumped together as klandestini, a caste apart from all other kinds of migrants (the ones classified as essential labour supply, for example). It will limit them to the low-paid precarious work that is-suwed (black people) have always done.

There’s another thing. This latest wave of rhetoric comes at a time of manic flag-waving, which presumably works as some kind of patriotic prophylactic for the coronavirus. There are now official government media spots that tell us ‘Viva Malta – Din l-art hi tal-qalbenin’ (‘Viva Malta – This is the land of the brave’). You’d be pardoned for thinking corona was the Ottoman fleet.

Insufferable and all that, but that’s not the point here. The cocktail of gormless patriotism, xenophobia, fear of the contaminated other, a very real health and economic crisis, and an 18-year legacy of hard talk and soft action, makes the latest wave particularly dangerous. Now, more than ever, I really wouldn’t want to be clinging to a tuna pen.


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