A number of NGOs that used to berth their rescue vessels in Malta have appealed to the Maltese government to withdraw the decision banning them from departing from the island’s harbours.

In the recent past, they did so, with no harmful consequences to Malta. Their berthing in Malta merely facilitated the efficacy of their rescue missions. They could sail and, in less than a day, be in the zones where migrant vessels needed assistance. Now they have to leave from Marseilles, four sailing days away, or else stay at sea for long periods of time, which is not always humanly possible.

This callous policy should be withdrawn at once. No civilised country should prevent and obstruct rescue missions by non-governmental organisations.

I understand the government’s policy, scrupulously applied by the previous administration, that Malta receives rescued migrants only if they are picked up at a point closer to Malta than Lampedusa or any other Italian territory.

However, to block ships and aircraft from being based in Malta does not make legal or moral sense. The government is probably afraid that such rescue ships would land migrants in Malta, but the authorities would be legally correct to allow such migrants only in accordance with its international legal obligations.

So what is the reason for this measure? Populism? Pressure from the Italian Interior Ministry? Or just the flexing of muscles at the expense of the weak? NGOs are asserting that migrant deaths at sea have risen since the rescue missions were disallowed from leaving Italian and Maltese harbours. How can one be pro-life, insist on the beginning of life from the moment of conception, proclaim that the religion of the State is Catholicism and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to deaths of human beings in the central Mediterranean?

Archbishop Charles Scicluna and Bishop Mario Grech harshly criticised this prohibition when it was announced.

They stated that the burden had to be carried by everyone, “but woe betide us if we close the door, if we harden our hearts and if we insult, criticise and condemn those who remind us what being Christian truly means… the Maltese should not be held up as an example of a people who closed their doors, whose heart had hardened and who closed their eyes to avoid seeing the need of their brother and sister who were stripped of all dignity”.

In a statement on June 12, with reference to a migrants’ ship stranded off Malta, both bishops stated “we pray that God will guide our politicians to ensure that their future decisions, whilst keeping in mind our limitations, are in line with the same extraordinary humanity shown by our ancestors as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles”.

No civilised country should prevent and obstruct rescue missions by non-governmental organisations

If, as a result of the fact that rescue missions are not allowed to leave from Malta, a vacuum has been created in rescue missions in the centre of the Mediterranean, then this “extraordinary humanity of our ancestors” has not been visible in recent government actions.

“Difficult situations should elicit the best in us,” Mgr Scicluna said, adding: “The first thought for humans in distress is that they are human beings. Closed doors, closed ports, closed hearts: very sad indeed.”

These words reflect the thoughts and position of Pope Francis regarding migrants. Our politicians should remember this when they visit Rome every now and then and bow to kiss the papal ring.

To make matters worse, the arraignment of the German captain of a rescue vessel was an example of justice being applied in Shylock fashion.

As is their habit, law enforcement agencies will throw the book at the accused when they know full well that rescuing migrants at sea is not a criminal offence under the laws of an EU State like Malta.

Of course, they will leave no stone unturned to see that everything is in order and try to nail the accused on some technical offence relating to registration to save embarrassment. But no one will accept that the arraignment was made for any reason other than to dissuade NGOs from trying to use Malta as their rescue base.

As Fr Paul Chetcuti SJ wrote: “those who took to the seas to save the drowning masses were treated as criminals for not possessing the right permits to save lives” (The Sunday Times of Malta, August 26).

As if one needs a permit to save people from drowning at sea.

Saving people is a duty rather than a right, enshrined in what Sophocles 2,500 years ago, in the play Antigone, described as “the unwritten and unfailing statutes of heaven. For their life is not of today or yesterday, but from all time, and no man knows when they were first put forth”, which no man or government can deny. Instead, those who save people at sea are branded as criminals.

In June 2014, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca said that the renowned Maltese hospitality is a “universal value” the people should extend to anyone who needs protection. Noting that the external suffering experienced by migrants is often talked about, the President said migrants’ “internal suffering” should not be ignored.

It is these words, not Italian Home Affairs Minister Matteo Salvini’s populist remarks, that we should heed.

Of course, politicians like to be popular, however there are certain things which one does that are not based on opinion polls or surveys, nor to win votes or pursue a convenient populist trend, but only because they are the right things to do.

Tonio Borg is a former European commissioner and foreign minister.


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