The Maltese have a reputation for being very generous. Thousands dig deep into their pockets in response to any public appeal to raise money for the needy overseas, be it in aid of starving children in Africa or earthquake-stricken Haiti.
But that national compassion fizzles away the minute the problem reaches our doorstep. When a group of desperate asylum seekers tries to reach the safety of our shores, we tend to unilaterally point them in the direction of Italy… or Libya, the hell they fled from in the first place.
When a merchant vessel approached Malta asking for help with a sick crew member in September, we refused to let it dock, fearing it was a case of Ebola.
Albeit not logical, and with some stretch of the imagination, our behaviour is somewhat understandable. We are a tiny island in the Mediterranean with very limited resources. We tend to be overly protective with what we perceive we have built along the years.
But it is despicable to see two of the most developed countries in the word shamefully build a fortress around themselves in these extraordinary times.
On Tuesday, Britain announced it would not support any future search-and-rescue operations aimed at preventing migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean.
Just hours earlier, it became known that Australia became the first developed country to shut its borders to citizens of countries hit by the Western African Ebola outbreak, a move that in effect stigmatizes healthy people and which would actually make it harder to fight the disease.
In 2014, the world went belly up. As a deadly disease once destined to the history books reared its ugly head, savage Islamic militants and wars have displaced millions.
Just think about it: the Syrian war is generating a refugee every 15 seconds! Never before in United Nations history have we had so many people picking up their belongings in search of safety.
Most of these people are not fleeing because they simply want a better job. They are running as they see their relatives killed, their homes set on fire, their lives destroyed.
Neighbouring countries to war-torn regions are stretched to the limit. Lebanon, a small country of four million people, is currently hosting a million Syrians.
And closer to home, more than 165,000 people tried to cross the Mediterranean this year. More than 2,500 have died in the attempt. Hundreds of others are missing.
Italy is about to pack up its expensive Mare Nostrum mission, which has saved 140,000 people.
It will be replaced by the EU’s border agency, Frontex, which, once again, will concentrate on border control. In other words, irrespective of the thousands fleeing Libya and Egypt, we are once again building walls instead of saving lives. To put it bluntly, as European leaders cover their backside and engage in talks which lead to nowhere, we will see more asylum seekers die at sea.
Britain might never have been a major player in the Mediterranean humanitarian mission. But by trying to justify its act of despicable inhumanity on misguided claims that rescue missions might end up encouraging migrants to make the dangerous sea crossing is facetious.
Recent history has taught us that no amount of political posturing would convince desperate refugees to turn back. Do European leaders honestly think entire communities are going to be deterred from jumping on a boat by the fact there is no rescue service at sea? It’s the equivalent of stopping to use your car because the government is saying it’s dangerous to drive.
If Malta was being set ablaze by extremists, and my family was butchered, I would be the first to jump on that rickety luzzu to Sicily, irrespective of the dangerous sea conditions and the shark-infested waters.
What makes David Cameron’s decision even more ill-judged is the fact that Britain was militarily involved in failed countries like Iraq and Libya. It is not enough to oust dictators, deposit tens of thousands of weapons and expect periphery countries like Italy, Greece and Malta to clean up the mess.
But then again, politics has little to do with humanity and in the UK the immigration debate’s toxic nature continues being fuelled by the xenophobic tabloids.
The UK has taken just 100 of Syria’s most vulnerable refugees allowed under a scheme announced to help them seven months ago. The UK has taken just 10 of Malta’s refugees through the EU relocation programme!
Ian Birrell, former deputy editor of The Independent summed it up perfectly: “Britain must resolve whether it wants to remain an open and optimistic force in the world or curl up like a defensive hedgehog, showing only prickles to the rest of the planet”.
Cameron is merely trying to portray himself as being tough with migrants, thanks to the serious threat from right-wing UKIP in next year’s election.
Meanwhile, Australia is failing to realise that its draconian move will deter Australian volunteers from joining the Ebola effort.
Health experts said such measures have no scientific or health justifications, since people without symptoms of Ebola, even if they later manifest the disease, are not contagious.
As it has done with refugees, the Australian political establishment is once again demonising and excluding some of the world’s most impoverished and exploited people.
But should we be surprised when we see politicians jumping on the political bandwagon and succumbing to fears and myths instead of educating the electorate and standing by principles?
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