2018 has started with more loss of life in the Mediterranean Sea which has become a veritable cemetery which weighs on our collective conscience.
Up to 64 migrants died off the coast of Libya on Saturday when their flimsy boat sank. Another tragedy took place in Libyan waters on Monday when 100 migrants were reported to have lost their lives, while 700 were rescued by the Libyan coast guard.
“Among them were many children who are believed to have drowned at sea,” said Doctors Without Borders Sea on Twitter. “Among the survivors was a three-year-old child who has lost her mother and arrived alone, and a family of 11 now a family of three,” it added.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that 2,832 migrants died last year trying to reach Italy from North Africa. Some 119,310 people made it to Italy, compared to 181,436 the year before.
All this shows that Europe’s migration policies are failing. Moreover, the agreement with Libya – through which migrants are kept from crossing the Mediterranean but are exposed to human rights violations and even slavery – has not stopped the tide.
As a result of the ‘good relationship’ with three successive center-left Italian governments, Malta has been spared from boat arrivals in the past four years. Most asylum seekers in the past years have reached us safely. ln 2016 Malta accepted asylum applications from 1,255 people. Yet there was no drama which triggers racist instincts associated with boat arrivals.
UNHCR estimates that less than 30% of around 19,000 who arrived by boat from Libya since 2002 remain in Malta.
This breathing space has exorcised the spectre of rabid racism and xenophobia and has given Malta time to start enacting integration policies. It has also contributed to a shift in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s discourse from advocating push back in 2013 to a more humanitarian tone. Still, while integration has not remained a taboo in policy making much more needs to be done.
With elections due in Italy in March, the prospect of a right wing government which includes the xenophobic Lega Nord is now a concrete possibility. This would be tragic in many ways because migration can never be talked away by bullish discourse. Irrespective of the outcome, Malta will probably face a different interlocutor after March , one which may be less keen on taking responsibility for the rescue of migrants in Maltese waters.
This may be an issue where the Nationalist Party can also contribute by using its influence on fellow European People’s Party member Forza Italia, which is likely to have a key role in the next Italian government.
Irrespective of the outcome of Italian elections, Malta needs to start preparing for the worst. Going back to the push back days is no longer possible, simply because of the dissonance between turning back the wretched of the Earth while giving red carpet treatment to the global rich.
Instead we can become a strong voice for rational solutions advocated by the Vatican, Italian politicians like Emma Bonino and European civil society. Instead of supporting agreements with Libya which have failed in stopping the deaths in Mediterranean, Malta can use all its power as a Member State to push for long term solutions.
The only way to stop these tragedies is to establish legal and safe passage to Europe for asylum seekers, an effective burden sharing system through which asylum seekers are distributed in different EU countries and the introduction of quotas of economic migrants from Africa, all coupled with trade policies and investment aimed at creating work opportunities in both the Maghreb and the Sub Saharan Africa.
In the absence of this, deaths will continue to weigh on our collective conscience.