In the MV Aquarius migrant-ship standoff, Malta’s case rested on two planks. First, we argued the determining factor is international law. Second, we insisted Malta has always followed the laws and conventions it had bound itself to follow. Without these two planks, Malta’s case would have been considerably weaker.

What a good thing it was, therefore, that back in 2013, Joseph Muscat was pressured to make a U-turn on his decision to take the law into his own hands and illegally push migrants back to Libya. Later, he said he had been bluffing but the evidence shows otherwise.

The thanks is owed to those Maltese activists and lawyers who lodged legal appeals and bravely ignored Muscat’s veiled threats.

The point of recalling that incident is not to relitigate it. It is to show just who was speaking up in the name of the real national interest at the time. It was the activists not the online rottweiler pack savaging them as traitors.

If they had got their way, the populists and ultra-nationalists would have actually damaged the strongest argument we have.

Faced with Italy’s populist government five years later, we would not have been able to say, with any credibility, that the law should be respected. Nor, rest assured, would we have been able to continue with other pushbacks without serious repercussions for our EU membership.

Instead, the tiniest State in the EU would have ridiculously initiated a game of might-is-right – a game we are always bound to lose with bigger, mightier countries.

Malta has a vested interest in an international order based on the rule of law – indeed, based on the letter of the law with minimum scope for interpretation. This is so even when this or that particular law might not exactly favour us. The law binds other nations not just us. It gives us something much closer to an equal footing than power games ever will.

We are going to need to remember this twin lesson: right-wing nationalism betrays the national interest; the lawprotects it.

This summer is likely to raise other cases like that of the MV Aquarius, and there will be times when the principled action – in the national interest – will be to give the migrant ships safe harbour.

This twin lesson has a bearing on how we think about migrants within our society, not just about how we manage the security of our borders.

First, there’s consistency. Respecting the law means that no undocumented migrants requesting some kind of humanitarian protection should be called ‘illegal immigrants’ until their claims have been processed and found to have no basis. Until then, the law presumes they have the right to enter a country without documentation.

Calling them ‘illegal’ isn’t plain-speaking. It’s plain rubbish. In fact, it’s toxic rubbish. It poisons the social climate. It makes it more difficult in practice for such migrants to integrate.

There will be times when the principled action – in the national interest – will be to give the migrant ships safe harbour

Second, integration is not about us being nice. It’s about pursuing the national interest. If migrants feel unprotected in society – whether it’s because there’s legal discrimination or because the law is a dead letter given rampant discrimination – they will seek protection in other ways.

When Italy’s populists refer to the various ethnic mafias controlling certain turfs in big cities, they have a point. Some of these mafias are, of course, regional Italian ones, but others are international (Russian, Nigerian, etc.). However, the full story has to include the fact that these mafias thrive on selling protection, of a kind, to people who didn’t find the Italian State offered enough security.

The point here is not to shift blame. It’s to recognise that an integration policy that offers real rights, equality and protection under the law, to people who have a right to be here, is not wishy-washy. It’s the most tough-minded policy we can have in our own best interests.  Finally, there’s the perennial struggle against myth. There are some official figures going round. They show that, although boat arrivals from Africa are dramatically down from a few years ago, Malta is still processing a high number of asylum applications – proportionately (per capita) higher than Italy, and the fourth-highest in the EU.

Such statistics are an important part of the picture. But it is not true to add, as some have suggested, that it doesn’t matter how migrants arrive. It makes no difference if migrants arrive straight from a perilous journey by boat or else from Italy by air or land? Really?

It may not matter for the application statistics. It certainly matters for financial, logistical and human resources.

We should know this from our own experience. A boat of several hundred migrants arriving at once needs well-organised reception centres involving humanitarian, medical and security personnel.

The migrants will continue to need monitoring – if nothing else to be protected from the disease and abuse that comes from overcrowding, and the vulnerability to crime organisations seeking new recruits or victims.

This phase is one of the most consequential both for migrants and for the host country. Mismanaged, it can brutalise both – with severe consequences for life beyond the detention centres.

So let’s not be glib about the difference made by how migrants arrive. Let’s keep it real for our own sake. Otherwise, we can’t keep our own values under careful watch. And we won’t be able to manage our own national interest.


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