Captain Morgan migrant fiasco: No more ‘Mr Tough Guy’…

Malta can no longer play the 'Tough Guy' card, when it comes to gambling with the lives and safety of human beings caught up in the ongoing immigration tragedy

Almost exactly a month ago, I wrote an article (‘Migration crisis, or hostage situation?’ – 12 May) about the government’s strategy of detaining migrants out at sea, on board Captain Morgan pleasure cruisers, “until a European solution is found to the problem”.

It concluded with the following prediction: “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)”.

Four weeks later, I find myself in the position of having to retract just one small detail of that otherwise correct prediction: for Malta did indeed ‘back down’, eventually – at the very first sign of trouble, as it happened.

In so doing, our country lost more than just ‘face’. We also lost all our bargaining power with the EU, in the eternal bid for a permanent European relocation agreement (not mind you, that we ever had very much to begin with; but I already made that point in the last article).

In all other details, however, matters unfolded exactly as predicted: and I won’t even take too much credit for that, either… because, from the very outset, there was only one way this tragic farce could ever have realistically concluded.

Even a very small child could easily have foreseen how a strategy to blackmail the European Union, using African asylum-seekers as hostages, could only ever backfire: seeing how the same EU had already made it abundantly clear, over the past 15 years, that it doesn’t give a toss how many lives are lost at sea in the attempt to cross over to Europe from Africa.

Meanwhile, there were other reasons to assume that this escapade would end in capitulation. By resorting to such strong-arm tactics in the first place, the government only exposed itself – as opposed to the EU – to ever-increasing pressure.

Not just because of all the inevitable criticism this policy would surely attract from international human rights institutions… but also because the situation on board those vessels was bound to precipitate into a life-threatening emergency sooner or later; so all the European Commission really had to do, in the end, was sit back and wait patiently for matters to inevitably slip out of our control.

Then again, however: not even I expected the above prediction to materialise so darn… literally.

In the space of just half an hour last Sunday, the crew of those Captain Morgan vessels went from being ‘hostage-takers’, to being taken hostage themselves. And as a result of that same sudden reversal of roles, the government found itself undergoing an identical transition, too.

One minute it was trying to play ‘hard-ball’ with the EU: threatening to veto EU operations, and dishing out one ultimatum after another; and then suddenly – just like that – it found itself instantly capitulating to the first ultimatum it received.

In that precise instant, all hope of Malta ever resuming the ‘Tough Guy’ approach, in our stand-off with the EU, simply fizzled away into nothing. For just as you, me, and everybody else could see the speed (and ease) with which the government of Malta simply caved in to pressure… so, too, could the people it was trying to blackmail.

In fact, I almost shudder to imagine what the private reactions would have been like in European Union circles; for if the implications were not so tragic, the events we all witnessed last weekend were almost the stuff of a Mel Brooks comedy.

Let’s start with the dynamics of how 450 asylum-seekers – rescued at sea with hardly anything but the clothes on their backs (if even that) – somehow managed to turn the tables onto their captors, from one moment to the next.

According to Prime Minister Robert Abela himself – interviewed, as usual, on his own party TV station (in other words, cocooned from the prying questions of independent journalists) – “the crew aboard one of the boats, the Captain Morgan vessel Europa II, had started asking the Maltese authorities to save them in view of the rapidly deteriorating situation.”

He added that: “Until yesterday, we had no intention of bringing the migrants in - we planned to continue holding our ground until relocation happened. But at one point we were informed by the crew that the migrants had entered the kitchen and taken some knives, and were threatening to blow up a gas cylinder and burn rubbish…”

It was only then that the prime minister contemplated whether to deploy the AFM to take back control of the vessel; and concluded – quite rightly (though it should really have occurred to him from the very beginning) – that “this would lead to a situation where crew members, soldiers or migrants could be hurt, and the loss of lives was also possible.”

Small wonder, I suppose, Dr Abela would be so reluctant to take questions from the press. For there is a LOT to answer for in this truly unbelievable situation.

Are we to understand, for instance, that – having taken the highly risky decision to keep 450 people (mostly men) in detention at sea, for a possibly indefinite period of time - the government entrusted the administration of these floating detention centres only to the existing crew-members of Captain Morgan pleasure cruisers? In other words, people who have never really had to deal anything more ‘life-threatening’ than - at most - a drunk tourist feeling sea-sick at the Blue Lagoon?

Incredibly, the answer seems to be ‘yes’. Rather than hiring those vessels, and placing them under the command of people who actually do know a thing or two about running a detention centre – like, perhaps, warders from Malta’s Detention Services; or even the AFM itself – the government chose to hire those boats complete with their usual, standard crew: i.e.,  people employed in the ‘leisure and entertainment’ industry.

I suppose that also explains how easily a boatload of unarmed men could hijack four Captain Morgan boats, and successfully dictate the terms of their own disembarkation. Because – as is painfully evident from Abela’s own admission, above - it didn’t occur to those inexperienced crewmembers that it might be good idea to strip those vessels of anything that could be used as a weapon against them, before transforming them into floating prisons.

On the contrary, they even left the knives in the kitchen drawers; and at least one gas cylinder where it could be seized by a passenger, and used as a makeshift flame-thrower.

I mean, honestly: why not just hand them over the engine keys, while you’re at it? It would at least have spared those poor crew-members (for don’t get me wrong; they’re not to blame for this fiasco) what must have been some truly hair-raising moments, straight out of ‘The Mutiny on The Bounty’.

This brings me to another small problem with Abela’s declarations on One TV last Sunday. Please note the following sentence: “Until yesterday, we had no intention of bringing the migrants in - we planned to continue holding our ground until relocation happened.”

Well, those 450 people had already been at sea for anywhere up to five weeks, before eventually deciding to assume control of the situation themselves (for which they can hardly be blamed, either: seeing as, by Abela’s own admission, there was no end in sight to their unenviable predicament).

Even without factoring in last weekend’s weather conditions – which amounted to gale-force winds, on board vessels which not exactly designed to handle such conditions – it is quite simply inconceivable that human beings, kept in such appalling conditions for an indefinite period of time, would not sooner or later ‘rebel’.

This should all along have been perfectly predictable; even for the simple reason that it occurs so frequently even in detention centres on land.

In fact, from the outset I assumed that government would have drawn up adequate contingency plans for such eventualities… just as I assumed that floating detention centres would be manned by experienced, trained personnel, instead of tour-guide operators.

But no. It is clear from Abela’s candid reaction that Sunday’s ’mutiny’ took him completely by surprise… forcing a last-minute rethink of his government’s entire strategy; and instantly placing Malta on the back-foot in its endless ‘negotiations’ with the EU.

And at the end of it all: what did Malta actually gain from this ill-conceived, poorly-planned and atrociously-executed gamble? Well… I was about to say ‘nothing at all’, and leave it at that. But that might be taking things too far.

There is, at least, one positive outcome to all this. After the events of last weekend, Malta can no longer play the ‘Tough Guy’ card, when it comes to gambling with the lives and safety of human beings caught up in the ongoing immigration tragedy.

And that might not be such a bad thing, at the end of the day. For let’s face it: it never really suited us all that much…