Once again, we see a photo of another tragedy at sea, an image that must fill us all with a sense of hopelessness, and yet, simultaneously fails to capture the horrific circumstances of one more loss of life.
We do not know the name of the victim, how many people originally boarded the dinghy, we do not know the conditions they were forced to endure out at sea, nor indeed, can we comprehend the circumstances that forced them to take the journey in the first place. How many other tragedies go unreported?
How many lives have been lost, but not mourned? On the surface, the dilemma Malta’s Prime Minister finds himself in is undeniable: caught between a rock and a hard place. In the prevalent European and national political environment, any action that lends itself to compassion and to the alleviation of suffering can easily be manipulated in the arena of right-wing populism as a sign of weakness.
The politics of fear are used and manipulated to such an extent, that personalities such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini have emerged as the hero for many, but peel back the rhetoric, and a spectre reveals itself: this is the politics of intimidation and sheer disregard for human life that has come to represent the EU.
At this point, questions as to where responsibility lies, and calls for solidarity and equal distribution are beyond futile.
The system is broken, and it has been for years. The politics of securitisation, that which has come to represent and frame discussions and policies around migration, begets discord, conflict and dissent between states. Paradoxically, the securitisation of migration, couched in a politics of fear, has fuelled the voices of fascism and far-right nationalism – we have been here before.
To recognise the gravity of the present situation, the lives that have been lost, and those who have been denied refuge in our ports, must first and foremost be recognised as human. It is such suffering, borne out of vulnerability, that is our shared condition as human beings, here we are all in the same proverbial boat.
To protect ourselves from danger, we depend on social, legal and political institutions to protect each one of us. If we are to recognise this shared humanity, that is both precious and vulnerable, it means acknowledging that 500 migrants are currently stranded outside Malta’s shores. The events surrounding each sea rescue point to the precarity of the EU and each member state, the very same institutions on which our shared security ultimately depends.
In this regard, our collective wellbeing necessarily depends on strong institutions that we can trust, and the survival of these institutions requires strong political leadership, grounded not in intimidation but in a moral ethic of respect. The loss of life, the protracted and unnecessary suffering of those denied protection, cannot and must not be the sole responsibility of the government of Malta. The failings of the EU, the lack of solidarity between states, and the politics of fear, must not be used to justify the ongoing suffering of lives that matter.
The EU needs to understand that its experiment to leave sea rescue in the hands of an inept Libyan coastguard has failed. It needs to understand that Libya remains in a state of chaos and as long as such countries are not helped, people will continue trying to seek routes of safety.
By barring humanitarian vessels from their ports, EU states will only make the crossings more treacherous. Europe cannot continue pretending this tragedy is not happening.