Muscat finally makes the positive turn on migration

On migration Muscat has evolved from demagogue to statesman, but we should not be short-sighted about the solutions on migration and human smuggling

I expect Renzi and Muscat to talk about creating the legal avenues for migration, which the socialists in the European parliament support.
I expect Renzi and Muscat to talk about creating the legal avenues for migration, which the socialists in the European parliament support.

Joseph Muscat is now speaking like a true statesman on migration.

He seems to have realised that celebrating Malta’s heroic role in saving migrant life earns us more respect as a nation and more legitimacy to our demands than calling on others to “smell the coffee” and threatening pushbacks.

In this sense Muscat has become much more like his predecessor Lawrence Gonzi who also celebrated Malta’s role in saving lives. But he has one bigger advantage: he also faces a more responsible opposition, which unlike the one he led, is not trying to outflank him from the far-right. He does not have  Simon Busuttil presenting plans which envision the suspension of Malta’s international obligations, allowing Muscat to be better placed to enact a national integration policy, an area completely neglected by the previous administration.

On Sunday Muscat sent a powerful message to his party’s grassroots by hugging a child of African origin… my first reaction was negative, being allergic to political theatre. Why should politicians in 2015 feel underline racial equality through staged gestures? Do we need to hug children to be believe in equality – shouldn’t we be talking about granting children of sub-Saharan migrants citizenship the way we grant it to Russian tycoons who buy it? 

But I have to acknowledge that Muscat’s grand gesture touched the cold heart of his ardent followers. Like the thousands who blindly followed him in voting to keep hunting in spring, it may well be possible that many will start accepting migrants in the same way they previously accepted gay people.

I am not completely sure this will happen. Surely enough, Muscat has to keep reckoning with his own past. He was the one who gave legitimacy to the word “pushback” when a group of migrants was chosen to be deported to Libya, an operation only stopped after NGOs took legal action through the Strasbourg court. From now on, the word pushback will be used against him by the far-right.

But he has one advantage. The Maltese are not a cruel nation. When faced with tragedies like those happening in the Mediterranean, their instinct tells them that we should not let people drown. So calling for pushbacks in these circumstances is fast losing legitimacy.

While I welcome Muscat’s change in discourse and his diplomatic alliance with Italy, I cannot say that am entirely satisfied with the solutions proposed by the two nations. The fight against human traffickers is important and so is helping Libya to restore stability. But the emphasis at the moment should be put on saving lives through a new mission modelled on Mare Nostrum.  

Those like the British government who opposed this mission because it could have encouraged human trafficking share a big part of the blame for turning the Mediterranean in to a tomb.

One should also be wary of comparing human trafficking across the Mediterranean with slavery in the sixteenth century as Matteo Renzi did in the past days. While slavery involved the forced transportation of millions of Africans against their will, human traffickers are exploiting people who actually want to move to Europe. Actually a large number of them qualify for protection in Europe but have to make the dangerous crossing to be eligible for it.

Therefore expecting the problem to disappear after targeting the smugglers is either naïve or simply a way of articulating a political discourse aimed at local constituencies by sounding humane and  “tough” at the same time.

That is why I expected Renzi-Muscat to talk about creating the legal avenues for migration, which the socialists in the European parliament support.

Muscat is right that Europe faces an appointment with history: “If Europe, if the global community continues to turn a blind eye... we will all be judged in the same way that history has judged Europe when it turned a blind eye to the genocide of this century and last century," he said. 

The EU has so far failed all those who have died. Malta is also a part of the EU and if we do not work for concrete solutions, which fully respect human rights, we will also be part of the problem.

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