Migration crisis, or hostage situation?

Malta has been practically begging the EU for a ‘relocation agreement’ for well over 15 years now... to no avail. Admittedly, it was the EU’s very intransigence that precipitated such drastic action from Malta in the first place...

Anyone remember a 1996 film called ‘Ransom’? Ok, so perhaps it wasn’t the most memorable movie of that decade... but it did illustrate a small, inconvenient truth about classic ‘kidnap scenarios’.

In this respect, it could easily have been inspired by the real-life abduction of Paul Getty by the ‘Ndrangheta in 1973... which anyone older than around 50 will surely remember better, as it had dominated the international news for months at the time.

That, too, has been made into a Netflix movie... and at the risk of oversimplifying an intensely complicated plot: it revolved around the hostage’s oil tycoon grandfather, John Paul Getty (‘the richest man in the world’, back then) who initially refused to pay the ransom, or negotiate with the kidnappers: only to eventually receive his grandson’s severed ear in the post.

But back to ‘Ransom’. In that movie, Mel Gibson likewise plays a multi-millionaire whose only son has been abducted. The kidnappers demand a ransom of $2 million for the boy’s safe return... but (spoiler alert!) Gibson unexpectedly turns the tables onto the bad guys, by offering the same sum as a bounty on their own heads instead.

Hence that ‘small truth about kidnapping’ I mentioned earlier... which incidentally also applies to ‘hostage-taking’ scenarios. To put it succinctly, the chances of a successful kidnap depend largely on two factors: one, whether the people you’re negotiating with actually give a toss about what happens to the hostage; and two, whether they’re willing to actually play ball with your demands.

If (like John Paul Getty) their response is to ignore you altogether... or if (like Mel Gibson) they try and outsmart you at every turn... well, you’re going to have a problem on your hands. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to proceed from words to action (like, for instance, by really slicing off your victim’s ear, instead of merely ‘threatening to’). But not even that can realistically be expected work, in a case where the relatives really don’t give a rat’s backside about whether your hostage lives or dies.

OK: by this point, some might of you might have already guessed where I’m heading with all this. For the past week or so, the government of Malta seems to have adopted a whole new strategy in its ‘negotiations’ with the European Union on migration. And while it might not exactly add up to the crime of ‘kidnapping’... well, it sure looks a lot like a classic ‘hostage situation’ to me.

In a nutshell, our new strategy is to load rescued migrants onto ‘pleasure cruisers’ operated by Captain Morgan... and keep them stranded out at sea, in international waters, for as long as it takes to force the EU into some kind of agreement about relocation.

For this, we have the word of ‘senior government sources’, who told this newspaper that: “The migrants will be kept safe on board the ship until a European solution is found to the problem [...] Now it is the EU’s turn to show solidarity and shoulder responsibility for these migrants. [...] the government initiated communication with the European Commission and other member states for these migrants to be relocated permanently...”

And there you have it: replace the word ‘ransom’ with ‘a demand for a relocation agreement’ (and, naturally, remove the naked threat of physical violence)... and what you’re left with is an ‘ultimatum’ that is hardly very different from the basic premise of that movie.

Right now, Malta is effectively holding around 160 people hostage – no other way to describe it, I’m afraid – in an undisguised attempt to pressure the EU into finally giving us what we want.

But tell you what: I’m just as sick and tired as everyone else of all the ‘knights in shining armour’ who have recently – but only recently – emerged to condemn Malta’s handling of the latest migration crisis. (Not least, because they include people who had nothing whatsoever to say about similar, sometimes much worse, atrocities committed in the past... to say nothing of their own occasional roles within the governments that committed them.)

So for the rest of this article, I’ll resist expressing any further opinion of my own regarding the ‘morality’ or ‘legality’ of this stratagem. (I trust you all already got the general idea anyway).

Instead, I’ll look at it through the strictly pragmatic lens of ‘realpolitik’ – i.e., as Malta’s latest move on the foreign policy chess-board: nothing more, nothing less. At a glance, I’d say it seems to have a lot more in common with the real (tragic) case of Paul Getty, than the fictitious (happy-ending) one of ‘Ransom’.

Let’s start with the obvious: Malta has been practically begging the EU for a ‘relocation agreement’ for well over 15 years now... to no avail. Admittedly, it was the EU’s very intransigence that precipitated such drastic action from Malta in the first place...

But... well, that only leads us to the first of several gargantuan ironies embedded within this policy. The EU has never cared about the issue before. So what on earth gives us the impression that it would be any more willing to listen to our demands today: simply because we ‘threaten’ them (figuratively speaking, of course) with the ‘fate’ of 160 people... about whom the same EU, time and time again, has made it abundantly clear to us that it just... doesn’t... give... a toss?

To put that another way: the EU has already ignored the deaths of an estimated 19,000 people (source: InfoMigrants)

who have attempted to cross the Mediterranean since October 2013: when, if you’ll remember, around 350 died in a single day, after a migrant boat capsized off Lampedusa.

You may also recall how that tragedy had prompted loud protestations of horror and outrage, from all the EU officials who attended the victims’ mass-funeral in person... as well as solemn declarations and promises along the lines of: ‘Never Again’.

Well, seven years have since elapsed, and – despite constant complaints by all its southern

member-states, including Malta – the EU has taken no discernible action of any kind to prevent further loss of life at sea... beyond ‘Operation Sophia’, of course: which is ironic in itself, as this European intervention was actually aimed at training and funding the Libyan coastguard to handle the responsibilities of its own SAR zone... in other words, to ensure that rescued migrants were all taken back to Libya (or, even better, never got to leave its shores at all.)

And then, we all turn to the European Union for ‘justice’,

when we hold our own government guilty of what is after all exactly the same crime: ‘pushbacks’ (or ‘refoulement’, to use the UN-approved term). I mean... how ironic is that?

But that was just an aside. Meanwhile, the complete absence of any pan-European life-saving operation in the Mediterranean (of the kind we were after all promised after the 2013 tragedy) even prompted individual NGOs to fill the void themselves: stepping in to fulfil all those maritime life-saving obligations that virtually every single EU member state had simply abdicated. And yet, for all this... here we still are: expecting the EU to suddenly sit up and take notice, because another 160 people happen to be stranded at sea, while European countries squabble over whose responsibility it is to take them in. (As has already happened so often, in so many other ‘migrant stand-offs’, without ever resulting in a lasting agreement on relocation).

Hmm, I don’t know. What sense could there possibly be, in a strategy that hinges on something as perfectly non-existent as ‘the EU’s concern for the welfare of asylum seekers trying to cross the Mediterranean’? (Especially when – unlike the case with those in genuine danger/distress – there is no immediate threat to their lives at all?)

Ah, but... to be honest, that last part remains to be seen. No immediate threat from starvation or dehydration, perhaps. But committing suicide? Self-harm due to depression? Or even just accidentally falling overboard and drowning? Has enough thought been given to considerations such as these,

I wonder, when deciding on a policy to hold so many people out at sea... indefinitely?

Now: that may sound like a purely humanitarian concern – because, quite frankly, that’s what it is–but it also has a direct bearing on the strategy’s chances of success.

OK, I’ll try and keep this part brief: Malta might think it is the one putting pressure on the EU here: but as time wears on, and the EU continues to ignore our demands – and all along, those people remain stuck out there: developing all the physical and psychological problems you’d expect, given the circumstances – I somehow suspect that the opposite will increasingly become true.

It will be Malta – and not the EU – to find itself under mounting pressure: from the press, from other governments, from international human rights organisations, you name it... all due to growing concerns for the welfare of people who

(however much the government tries to argue otherwise) will inevitably – and rightly – be perceived as ‘hostages’.

How long, then, can we realistically expect the Maltese government to stick to its guns, in the face of an unwavering – and clearly unperturbed – EU? If the answer really is, as they said: ‘until a European solution is found to the problem’... well, we all know from past experience that means ‘forever’.

Hence the final, and most glaring irony of them all. In the end, Malta may well find itself being held hostage by its own foreign policy strategy... unable to back down for fear of losing face; yet unable to move forward for lack of any visible exit strategy (still less, any successful negotiation of a European agreement at the end of it all).

I don’t know about you: but, strategically-speaking, that’s not a position I would willingly put myself into.

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