Migration is a complex issue posing many genuine challenges which are subject, however, to a lack of informed and open discussion, particularly on its scale, impact and associated responsibilities.
It is further complicated by a lack of clear and consistent policy at national as well as EU level, and it poses special problems for a country the size of Malta with limited capacity and located as it is in one of the epicentres of migration today.
As with many populations across the Mediterranean, a significant and vocal segment are implacably hostile, while others are welcoming and inclusive. Others still, perhaps a majority, remain conflicted.
The situation is not helped in the least by the frequently ugly, ill-considered or clumsily communicated comments from government ministers, public officials and media commentators.
Recent months have witnessed increased reports on conditions for migrants detained either in Malta itself or on the high seas. Last week, we ran a story on the overcrowded, unhygienic conditions under which migrants are held at the Safi detention centre, whose failure to be informed about their asylum claims was putting an enormous strain on their mental health.
Five years ago, Malta was reminded by the Council of Europe of its basic obligations to improve such conditions.
More recently, Amnesty International has been strongly critical of the situation and of the policies and actions of the Maltese government. There have been many other local critics.
All of this makes the issue especially complex and sensitive for Malta, and inhibits the development of effective and appropriate responses. At another level entirely, it undermines the upholding of Malta’s ethical and legal international obligations.
More importantly, it constrains (and even silences) the innate humanitarian impulse of very many Maltese. As with any civilised and caring society, most Maltese people do not want to ignore or deny the immediate needs and rights of vulnerable people in life- threatening situations.
Each of us recognise that our dignity is at the core of our being; it forms a vital element of our identity and is key to how our society functions. It is a pillar of our constitution and of our laws, and is also an underlying strand of the common consensus by which we live.
It could be argued that it is therefore a defining but not unique part of our make-up as Maltese.
When we deny the dignity of others, whoever they may be, and when we ignore the inhuman conditions or circumstances in which they are forced to exist, we ignore and deny our own humanity. In such circumstances, we imply that there is a hierarchy of people to which human dignity and human rights apply, and conversely those to whom they do not.
This is surely not the standard by which Maltese people and society judges itself or would wish to be judged by others. Our treatment of vulnerable groups such as migrants is a mirror in which we see ourselves and our reflected values.
Recognising that other countries may well have a more negative approach to the issue of migration or acknowledging that the EU has much, much more to do to live up to either its promise or its obligations, does not in any way reduce Malta’s individual obligations.
In the context of our sense of ourselves as Maltese and our place in the world, and in recognition of our common humanity with others, we simply must improve the conditions and circumstances in which those in our care are treated. We must first and foremost respect not just their dignity but also our own.
Then we can offer much needed leadership on the issue and insist that others in the region and across the EU do likewise.
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