It has been said to death that the COVID-19 crisis brings out the best in us. Maybe, but the glass is also half empty.
Take asylum seekers.
As I write, a group of migrants rescued at sea by the Armed Forces is being brought to Malta.
At a time when other kinds of mobility have virtually come to a standstill domestically and internationally, the migrant journeys carry on. With all the problems and lockdowns in Europe, refugees from Syria are still trying to cross into Greece and Turkey.
Which will surprise only those who think that migrant journeys are pleasure trips. If they were, you’d expect them to be put off until conditions got better.
That they go on means one thing: that no matter how especially difficult the circumstances, for many people anything’s better than home. There is implicit privilege in being able to stay at home.
It follows that COVID-19 is not a good reason for us, the stay-at-homes, to set aside all standards of decency and commitments to international conventions. Nor is it a good reason to be heavy-handed with asylum seekers – especially not when the rhetoric and spectacle of solidarity are otherwise enjoying their finest hour.
Last Tuesday, the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality Rosianne Cutajar laid a wreath at the spot where Lassana Cisse Souleymane was shot dead a year ago. There is now a marble plaque with a photograph of Souleymane and the epitaph “All lives matter”. You don’t say.
Cutajar told the press that the murder showed just how tragically racism could escalate. As reported, “The murder of Lassana helps us realise how dangerous hate speech and racist comments are – they can even be fatal.”
Cutajar is right, except hate speech and racist comments are easy targets – as easy as a man walking home from work on a deserted country road, in fact. Not so the actions of certain colleagues of Cutajar’s.
The flowers had barely wilted at Ħal Far when the government said in a statement that Malta was ‘not in a position’ to guarantee the rescue of migrants at sea or to allow the disembarkation of migrants rescued by NGOs.
The announcement was being made “so that migrants planning to head towards Malta would be aware of the risks they faced”; “it is in the interest and responsibility of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbour”.
Pleasure-trip thinking aside, it’s worth wondering what such a statement might mean. Are we to understand that, in the event of migrants in distress at sea, our government will look away and let them drown?
Are we to understand that, in the event of migrants in distress at sea, our govern
And why are migrants being singled out anyway? I haven’t read any official statements that advised motorists to stay off the roads because there would be no one around to help them in the event of an accident.
We know that government resources are stretched. We also expect them to stretch as necessary, and without prejudice. That’s assuming that all lives matter.
They matter rather less just up the road from the plaque, too. Even as Cutajar spoke of the importance of integration, a swarm of police and soldiers, in riot gear and fully armed (no overstretch there, it seems), surrounded the oddly-named ‘open’ centre in Ħal Far. So wrong you hardly know where to start, but I’ll try.
First, it is not clear why the open centre was singled out. There are coronavirus-positive people in Mosta, too, and in Paola and Qawra and so on. I don’t see soldiers with machine guns besieging any of those places.
Nor did I spot sandbags around Mater Dei. There are rules, to be sure, and rightly so, but it is only at Ħal Far that the principle of the police as citizens in uniform fails to apply. At Ħal Far, that principle is replaced by the alt-right’s ‘boys in blue’.
Second, there is an unspeakable cruelty in imprisoning people in a place where social distancing is a privilege they can only dream of.
Illegal detention is bad enough: it’s been going on for years, right under our noses.
Illegal detention in an overcrowded, under-resourced hole with coronavirus-positive cases is another thing altogether.
Now the COVID-19 crisis comes with suspended freedoms for all of us, in one way or other. It’s just that the government seems to think that some people could do with even less freedom.
Perhaps that’s because it thinks that some people can’t be trusted, because of what they look like.
The third point is that what’s going on at Ħal Far is simply a symptom of a deeper malaise. Thing is, unlike justice, the fear of contamination does not wear a blindfold. Certain groups are believed to be more contaminating than others. Without wishing to wheel out the usual examples, it’s worth remembering that, historically, vicious discrimination has often worn the borrowed robes of hygiene.
A few months ago, dozens of migrants were hauled to court on charges of rioting at Ħal Far. This was at a time when buying hand sanitizer made you a germophobic psychological case, and yet the police officers leading the migrants into court wore rubber surgical gloves.
All-round warmth and fraternal love aside, the COVID-19 crisis is also an in-vino-veritas moment at which, while all lives matter, some matter less than others.
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