Last week’s diplomatic row between Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini and Maltese prime minister Joseph Muscat sparked by their refusals to accept a nongovernmental rescue ship carrying 629 mostly African migrants, reignited ultra-right wing rhetoric and violent racism in pro-Muscat online secret groups and across Malta’s political divide.
The migrants on the vessel included 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women. It ended when Spain’s new government accepted the ship Aquarius. Muscat pitted his refusal to offer people on board a safe port as a defence of the country’s “national interest” and called for “national unity”.
In 2013, Muscat promised to take the law into his own hands and illegally “push back” migrants to Libya, without them going through the asylum process. Maltese activists and lawyers, who lodged legal appeals against Muscat’s position, pressured him into stepping back from his illegal stance.
Those activists and lawyers – they included Labour supporters – were savaged as traitors by Muscat’s army of online trolls, as was then European Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström who asked that Malta meets its obligations at law.
Labour supporters were press-ganged into posting abusive and violent comments on Malmström’s Facebook timeline. One Kevin Vella asked “are you looking for a Black Dick Cicillia?” Another, Charles Mangion, said “Take them home with you I am sure you like big fat Black Pudding”.
We now see the pattern repeat itself with the Aquarius crisis.
An investigation by The Shift News into six of the biggest pro-Muscat secret Facebook groups – numbering 60,000 members and administered by government and Labour officials – found:
- Sustained attacks against Nationalist Party MEPs who called for Malta to meet its human rights obligations. Labour hate group members called MEP Roberta Metsola a traitor, a piece of shit, filth, a witch; they questioned her Maltese citizenship and called for her “to go fuck herself and burn in hell”; claimed that she’s motivated by a sexual desire for black migrants; and called for her to be physically and sexually assaulted by migrants in her own home.
- Attacks against human rights defenders. Labour hate group members called those “working against Malta” snakes, rats, traitors, and called for them to either leave Malta or take migrants into their own homes where they will be assaulted by the migrants.
- Calls for an illegal “push back”. Labour hate group members repeatedly called for a “push back” of migrants, in line with Muscat’s illegal stance in 2013, demanding that migrants in Malta are sent home now because nobody wants them in the country and demanding that ships are always turned away whether in Malta’s jurisdiction or not.
- Fear-mongering of a “black take-over”. Labour hate group members warning that “black power” is taking over Malta, that black migrants will take Maltese jobs, fill up the country’s parliament, make Maltese people their slaves, change our laws and religion, and spread HIV/AIDs.
- Anti-European nationalist rhetoric. Labour hate group members called for Malta to leave the EU, so as to not come under pressure to accept rescue ships; called for violence against Italian government officials; and celebrated the inhuman treatment of migrants in other EU member states.
The Nationalist Party’s reaction to the Aquarius crisis shows that Malta has no countervailing force to Muscat’s xenophobia and ultra-right wing politics.
Nationalist Party leader Adrian Delia repeated Muscat’s rhetoric on the Aquarius, saying that the “Aquarius incident has found the Maltese united in our stance in defence of the national interest”, adding that “[a]ny attempt to intimidate us will find us again united.”
Labour’s hate group members have been celebrating Delia’s position on migrants and the Aquarius crisis. There were countless comments praising “Dr Delia” for agreeing with Muscat.
Delia later gave an interview to Nationalist Party-owned Radio101 in which he said that the Opposition is ready and willing to join the government in Brussels to defend Malta’s position on immigration. In a past interview with Radio101, he warned listeners that Malta will no longer be Christian by 2050 in the face of immigration.
The Party’s Secretary General, Clyde Puli, defended the Party’s stand in a spat with David Thake on Facebook. His argument was based on the fact that the Party should not continue “burying its head in the sand” and understand the public sentiment – a far cry from the Party’s principled stand on migration.
It is no secret that the fears and prejudice surrounding migration are an easy way to win votes. Migration consistently tops the list of concerns when Parties evaluate those issues that top the charts for the electorate.
The PN had so far chosen a principled stand that explained Malta’s international obligations and prioritised human rights over xenophobia. The party in opposition is no longer keeping the party in government in check – both on xenophobic, ultra-right wing policy and on corruption.