“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a minority,” Mahatma Gandhi had said in 1922.
We all know how much Gandhi’s deeds and voice have meant for the world of civil peace movements. Drawing a parallel, the EU’s smallest member state, Malta, also has an important role to play.
As a state within both the EU and Schengen Area, Malta’s population enjoys travelling rather freely, seeking work and even settling down in other European countries. We, as EU-citizens, share these privileges with about 500 million inhabitants.
We choose through democratic processes how we want to live, who to include in our orbit and how we delegate our power to represent us. But have great achievements ever come for free?
The goals of a common market within the EU have been around since the signing of the treaties of Rome on March 25, 1957. Sixty years of exchanging ideas, implementing regulations and delegating decision-making has been realised through hard work, compromises and, at times, self-sacrificing policies for the common good.
Although the last few years may have been shakier than ever for the common bureaucratic apparatus, the efforts so far have resulted in a reality where people, goods, services and capital can move more or less freely about. Still, the realisation of today’s EU emerged from a shattered or even ‘hopeless’ prospect after World War II. Despite the havoc in our war-struck continent, where people had been forced to flee or face other poor consequences of war, we came together in a united vision built on peace and solidarity.
Frankly said, what we have seen over the last years concerning the ‘migration crisis’ is nothing new. Humanity has always been on the move and war is but a generation or two away even in our part of the world.
So what? Let me explain.
Considering the vast impact of war on society, we will likely have to face the aftermath of today’s conflicts no matter where we turn our eyes or aiding hands in the future. Additionally, in only a few years from now, researchers predict that climate change will push even more people to flee from their homes than the already 65.3 million forcibly-displaced individuals in the world (UNHCR 2015). They do not have a choice to stay.
The idea commonly spread about migrants deliberately choosing Europe as their ‘destination’ is, in fact, debunked as a myth. Researchers from the University of Warwick, the University of Malta, and the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP, Athens) note this in the report Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat.
Malta could serve as the compassionate reminder of the thousands of voices wishing to be saved from the Mediterranean
Like the situation was for Sweden and many other countries in the EU in 2015, Malta had its own ‘migration crisis’ as early as in 2013. At a time when the country received the biggest number of asylum applications per capita in the world, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat called for Brussels’s attention and managed to do so efficiently.
Similarly, in 2015, when they were having the largest number of asylum seekers per capita, Sweden made the political decision to put the brakes on immigration.
Time is nigh to work for Europe’s common future.
If governed wisely and action is taken immediately, Malta could become Europe’s empathetic eye. Why? Well, the country already serves as the territorial base for NGOs and companies, like the search-and-rescue Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas). Since Moas’s launching in August 2014, they have been operating with their private search-and-rescue ship in the central Mediterranean and have rescued over 30,000 lives. That’s why.
The central Mediterranean has, ever since the EU-Turkey deal of March 20, 2016, become the main gateway into Europe. Many rescue missions have taken place in international waters, 12-30 nautical miles off the Libyan coast.
Still, this is the same zone Frontex, the EU/Schengen’s border control agency, has chosen to withdraw from. It did so despite knowing that the number of women, children and men departing on a perilous journey by boat have kept coming ever since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.
Malta’s location used to be right in the middle of the route until new policies and changed ports of departure redirected the boats to search-and-rescue zones closer to Lampedusa and Sicily.
Frontex blames the ‘pull factor’ of NGOs as the main decision for not patrolling these perilous waters. They claim that the presence of international search-and-rescue operations is triggering smugglers to continue with their activities. Someone even claimed that non-profit-making organisations were colluding with the smugglers.
Most disquietly, such allegations undermine the EU’s border control credibility. Who are we going to trust?
Is the development in the EU’s most southern neighbourhood slowly becoming the Achilles heel we did not expect?
As we dispute the immoral breaking up of climate deals, shocking outcomes of general elections or new corruption scandals in our backyards, the courageous life-saving NGOs work quietly in the Mediterranean as our true beacons of human hope.
It would not happen without international support, of course, but if Malta decides to proactively support and speak out for life-saving initiatives, the EU’s smallest state could become the empathetic eye of Europe.
Just as Gandhi had said, by not letting oneself be governed by oppressing attitudes, Malta could serve as the compassionate reminder of the thousands of voices wishing to be saved from the Mediterranean.
Having held the presidency of the European Council in the first half of this year, Malta still has the momentum to call for crucial rescue zones in the southern Mediterranean and for more legal ways to get migrants into Europe.
David Johansson is a freelance journalist from Sweden with a particular interest in migration-related livelihood.
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