In September and October 2002, a group of 220 Eritreans were controversially deported from Malta. According to a damning report issued in 2004, many ended up tortured at the hands of a brutal regime upon their return to Eritrea.

In April 2020, five migrants who were among those stranded on a boat in Maltese waters were found dead, with survivors saying another seven people were missing, presumed dead. In 2002, we witnessed a sin of commission. In 2020, it is a sin of omission. Both are terrible crimes.

Let’s start with the obvious concern. We are not living in normal times. COVID-19 has wrought havoc across the world, putting strains on health services and decimating economies. Governments are being pushed to take extreme measures to save human lives, irrespective of nationalities.

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When Times of Malta broke the news that migrants stranded at sea had died on Wednesday, the government’s defence was that they had perished before entering Maltese waters. From a legal point of view, the argument may hold water, but it is nothing more than a smokescreen. The Maltese authorities wilfully held back from deploying a patrol boat despite knowing dead bodies were on board and the migrants were reaching the end of the line.

Sadly, we have seen successive Maltese governments, especially during the initial terms, make the same errors of judgement when faced with the migration dilemma. In a crisis it doesn’t know how to handle, a government will always resort to knee-jerk reactions.

The Fenech Adami administration had been criticised for the way it dealt with the Albanian migrants. The Gonzi administration was forced to loosen its approach, Joseph Muscat shifted from threatening to push migrants back to Libya to a more reasonable stand.

Fundamental rights are not suspended during war. In times of war, you take out all your fire engines to douse the flames. In times of war, you do not waste your precious resources to police thousands of hunters practising their ‘hobby’

They had one thing in common – all realised saving lives at sea should not come with any pre-conditions. Robert Abela’s new government has failed on its first major test.

The government’s poor justification that we’re in a ‘war’ holds no water. Fundamental rights are not suspended during war. In times of war, you take out all your fire engines to douse the flames. In times of war, you do not waste your precious resources to police thousands of hunters practising their ‘hobby’.

It is a known secret that the Armed Forces of Malta have been instructed to adopt delaying tactics when migrants are sighted in water, hoping they land in Italy or are forcibly returned to a country they are fleeing from. This tactic has now had tragic consequences.

It is equally disgraceful that several EU member states have adopted an almost non-responsive attitude to the subject of migration, especially when the tragedy isn’t happening at their doorstep.

It is logical that tiny Malta cannot hold up the entire continent’s migration policy on its shoulders. While we have a legal and moral obligation to save lives at sea, we need help with three things: to be backed up with a very clear and concerted effort to track down and capture traffickers; help to relocate refugees across the continent; and a clear plan to help north Africa. The EU has only made tentative steps to help with relocation. It’s been completely ineffective at doing the other two.

Ultimately, the Maltese government cannot pander to the prejudice, the misinformed, and yes, the hateful among us. Knowing you have public support for your decision doesn’t dilute the gravity of the crime.

We just hope the government isn’t conveniently diverting public opinion from social and economic emergencies brought about by coronavirus towards the more vulnerable asylum seekers by depicting them as a threat to our health when, let’s face it, it was jetsetting Europeans and locals who brought COVID-19 home. Malta and EU leaders will be judged harshly in the court of history.

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