For the last few months, we have witnessed a serious government facing the brutal threat of a pandemic the likes of which Malta has not experienced in a century. It has followed policies based on professional advice and clear communication to the public confidently, sensitively and with a sureness of touch.

But last week, the government closed its ports to the rescue of African migrants stranded in Malta’s search and rescue region and abandoned those at sea to their fate.

The duty to render assistance to people or vessels in distress at sea is an obligation under international law. Not to do so was an inhumane act. This was a major misstep by the government in an otherwise unblemished record since the emergency began.

The government’s rationale in doing this was understandable – but ill-judged.

It did so because it considered that the epidemiological battle against the spread of the coronavirus could only be won by shutting down the further spread of infection which the arrival on Malta’s shores of scores of migrants from Africa through the failed State of Libya might cause.

The case for justifying such an approach is that the paramount duty of government is to ensure that its people are secure and safe, and that their liberty and well-being are assured.

It is the government’s duty to safeguard the territorial integrity of the Maltese islands against any threat, human or viral. The people’s right to health, well-being and life itself is the overriding consideration.

But that, of itself, is only a part – albeit an important part – of the argument. The government has the responsibility when making life or death decisions – as it made last week, and has been making in the context of COVID-19 for the last three months – to take account of humanitarian considerations and its continuing international obligations to save lives at sea within its search and rescue region. It is a moral as well as a legal responsibility. 

There is a defence – which some might make – that Malta is an over-populated little island which has no room for Africans in its midst. They are culturally and racially alien and should not be here.

The predicament in which the government has found itself should not be regarded as a zero-sum game

This is a racist, xenophobic contention which panders to blind prejudice among a sizeable minority. It should have no traction or validity with any responsible government in Malta. And it doesn’t.

Security is a broad concept. It is not simply a matter of closing down borders and repelling migrants, though this might be attractive to some.

Security encompasses much more than that, including the combined processes of international cooperation, preventive diplomacy and the widest promotion of dialogue and understanding designed specifically to avoid ever having to use extreme measures.

The fundamental issue is that the predicament in which the government has found itself should not be regarded as a zero-sum game. It should not be a question of either abandoning migrants at sea to their fate to ensure no further potential coronavirus contamination by a surge of migrants from Libya, or of simply shutting down Malta’s ports.  

The inescapable reality of Libya’s proximity to Maltese and Italian waters and the relative ease with which people-traffickers operate amid the chaos of the civil war have made it the gateway to Europe for many migrants from Africa and the Middle East, as we all are aware.

The mass influx of African migrants from Libya had been forecast since at least early March. The government should have drawn up comprehensive contingency plans to handle a fresh surge of hundreds of refugees fleeing to Europe, as happened 10 years ago under Operation Asulia to cope with a sudden surge of migrants from that war-torn country.

Contingency planning to open additional temporary accommodation centres (if necessary, in vacant hotels) to place any rescued immigrants in quarantine, together with the administration and manpower oversight to run them, should have been prepared.

Such preparations – and the uninterrupted rescue of anybody stranded in our search and rescue region – would have placed in an even more powerful light Malta’s plea to the European Union for the delivery of a €100 million worth of food and supplies to Libya in an urgent humanitarian mission to save lives.

While the object of the aid is to fight the humanitarian catastrophe in Tripoli, to tackle human trafficking and to stabilise the city and discourage asylum-seekers from risking their lives in the Mediterranean, it should also serve to underline Malta’s objective of seeking the EU’s operational support to tackle the resurgent migration challenges in the Mediterranean.

The second strand of Malta’s diplomatic effort, therefore, must focus on urging Brussels to bring back European naval patrols in the southern Mediterranean under Operation Sofia, which was effectively abolished last year.

It is imperative also to ensure that Malta does not bear the immigration load alone. There must be agreement on equitable burden-sharing between all EU nations.

Time is of the essence. Malta must muster every diplomatic sinew at its disposal through its missions in Europe, as well as in the European Commission and the European Parliament.

At the meeting of the Foreign Ministers Council on Wednesday, it must press for humanitarian aid to Libya and to draw up practical contingency arrangements to deal with the unfolding catastrophe at sea during the approaching sailing season.

The unstable situation in Libya and the hard lesson for the European Union of the last decade of migration flows in the Mediterranean Sea is that this is a problem that will not go away. It poses threats for Europe far beyond Mediterranean shores.

Financial support from the European Union for Libya combined with effective naval patrols on the border between Europe and Libya are now crucial and urgent.

Martin Scicluna, former government adviser on defence and home affairs

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