Migrants are not terrorists

When national security takes precedence over human and civil rights, society is on a very slippery slope. In some countries, this has led to the arrest of journalists and activists. In others it has resulted in citizens losing their right to privacy.

Manuel Mallia (right) by the side of civil liberties minister Helena Dalli. Mallia said terrorists could be posing as ‘hapless migrants’
Manuel Mallia (right) by the side of civil liberties minister Helena Dalli. Mallia said terrorists could be posing as ‘hapless migrants’

Before this week’s casual election to fill in the seat vacated by European Commissioner Karmenu Vella, Robert Henry Bugeja was a nobody on the political scene. But his xenophobe outburst on Facebook made it to the news pages.

In his latest Facebook tirade, Bugeja urged people not to donate to the annual charity fundraiser l-Istrina, claiming the money will be spent on “supporting illegal migration.”

This is the only the latest in a series of racist outbursts we’ve had from government and Labour’s ranks apart from Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s threat to push migrants back to Libya without granting them the right to apply for asylum coming only 18 months ago.

Since then Muscat changed tack and has instead focused on close cooperation with Italy to present a common front in Europe over migration, a policy which on a European level, yielded more results than his macho talk.

But Muscat’s actions fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia, culminating in the strong showing by the ultra-far right in the European elections this year and a demonstration by ‘nationalists’ and ‘patriots’ in the summer.

What is more worrying is the institutionalised demonisation of migrants, especially black African migrants. Although in its chequered history Malta’s geo-political position has drawn migrants from all parts of the world, over the past two decades the term has come become synonymous with sub-Saharan African migrants who reach our shores by boat.

Despite the majority of the 20,000 or so of migrants who arrived in Malta by boat since 2001 were granted international protection, in public and political discourse they are wrongfully labeled as “illegals.”

This is a myth. Most African migrants who reach Malta are rescued at sea and brought in by the AFM and were they illegal, would be arrested. Moreover, international law grants migrants the right to enter a country unannounced if they qualify for asylum and humanitarian protection.

This means that the only ‘illegal’ migrants are the ones who are not granted some form of protection and this can only be established once their application for asylum is processed, refused, and then refused on appeal.

As if branding all sub-Saharan nationals as ‘criminals’ were not enough, our own home affairs minister this week went one step further and said that migrants crossing the Mediterranean on rickety boats are “posing a major security threat.”

Addressing the Interpol General Assembly in the Principality of Monaco, the hawkish Manuel Mallia said the penetration of Europe’s frontiers by determined terrorists “posing as hapless migrants” was “now being felt strongly.”

His comments are utterly unbelievable and immature.  I’m sure the same bigoted racists who came out in support of Bugeja’s absurd claims will eloquently express their disagreement to this post. However, why the hell would anyone planning to organise a terrorist attack in Malta and Europe risk their life at sea and put any diabolical terrorist plan in jeopardy?

Why not use the same measure of vigilance to prevent determined terrorists reaching Europe posing as exited tourists, which is far easier than risking your life on a dinghy.

This year alone, up to 3,000 migrants died while trying to cross the Mediterranean, turning what once was known as the friendly sea into the sea of death. Moreover most of the devastating terrorist attacks in Europe, such as the 2005 London bombings, were planned and carried out by European citizens who can travel freely within the EU. What next? Shred the Schengen agreement and bring EU nationals on a par with non-EU citizens in the name of security?

Xenophobe political discourse, which is not exclusive to the Labour administration, has not only led to higher levels of racism and Islamophobia but it has also created hard-line policies such as the indiscriminate detention policy, which in turn produces marginalisation, poverty and mental illness.

When national security takes precedence over human and civil rights, society is on a very slippery slope. In some countries, this has led to the arrest of journalists and activists. In others it has resulted in citizens losing their right to privacy.

Once migrants become “illegals” and “terrorists” in the popular imagery, not only are rights disregarded but integration makes way for exclusion.

In the past Malta was better known as the “island fortress” which played a central role in defeating Nazism but if the political discourse on migration does not move away from the fear of unwanted intruders, we’ll become a fortress of injustice and discrimination.

The re-emergence of nationalist discourse and the ascendancy of the far right is no longer a distant fear but a reality which today’s political class must defeat and not bolster.

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