Closing ports to rescue ships is not a solution

Malta's official position was that Italy had violated international law on two counts: first, by closing its Lampedusa port to a rescue vessel, and then by ordering a merchant ship to stop outside its territorial waters

Lifeline MV arriving to Malta (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Lifeline MV arriving to Malta (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

It’s a question of logic, before all other things. Malta’s decision to arbitrarily deny entry to ALL NGO rescue vessels – just because one of them may or may not have violated international law – is not merely illogical, in and of itself... it is also a direct contradiction of all the government’s previous statements about Italy’s decision to do the same thing.

But I’ll come to that part later. There is a slightly more pressing issue right now: the responsibility for saving lives at sea. It seems a long time ago now – long enough to have since been completely forgotten – but it was only in April 2015 that Malta held a funeral service for 24 victims of a migrant tragedy that left an estimated 800 dead: back then, the largest single disaster of its kind ever on record.

The funeral was attended by the Prime Minister, the President of the Republic, the Bishops, the Imam, the EU Commissioner for Migration, and ministers from Italy and Greece, among other luminaries from near and far. It was followed by an emergency EU summit, in which a ‘10-point migration plan’ was adopted amid all the usual fanfare.

Personally, I don’t see much point in resuscitating any of those 10 points today. For one thing, we can all see that they didn’t produce any tangible results at all, beyond a bonanza of photo opportunities for all the luminaries concerned. For another, the EU has only just come up with yet another 10-point plan, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the earlier one... which, incidentally, had itself been criticised as a ‘rehash of past EU declarations’ when it came out three years ago. (But don’t worry: this time, it’ll work for sure... promise!)

No, what makes the 2015 incident so revealing is that it marks the last time European leaders actually couched their intentions in terms of ‘saving lives’. Back then, German chancellor Angela Merkel had described it as “a matter of European values”; Council president Donald Tusk had stressed the need to “strengthen search-and-rescue possibilities [...] and “reinforce solidarity”. And EU foreign policy commissioner Francesca Mogherini put the case most forcefully of all: “We have said too many times ‘never again’. Now is the time for the European Union as such to tackle these tragedies without delay. We need to save human lives all together, as all together we need to protect our borders and to fight the trafficking of human beings.”

Three years later, all the emphasis on ‘saving lives together’ seems to have been erased from all the newly rehashed statements and declarations. The commitment itself may still exist on paper; but in practice, we have at least two EU member states – first Italy, and now Malta – unilaterally closing their harbours to vessels involved in search and rescue operations: not just individual ships carrying rescued migrants, like Aquarius or Lifeline.... but any vessel at all, owned by any NGO with the declared aim of ‘saving lives at sea’.

Effectively, we have criminalised even the intention to carry out that responsibility... and judging by the hasty agreement reached last week, the decision seems to enjoy the full backing of the European Union.

You could almost describe it as an improvement over all those lofty, grandiloquent declamations that proved so useless the moment they were actually tested. Now, at least, the great pretence of ‘European values’ has finally been dropped. Faced with an emergency situation costing literally hundreds of lives at sea, the EU’s collective response has been to simply cry out: ‘Every man to himself!’ (or as Salvini might put it, ‘Si salvi chi puo’!). And it wouldn’t even sound so utterly awful, if we weren’t also limiting the availability of ships to actually perform search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean... thereby maximising the chances of those people drowning.

All the same: regardless of ‘European values’ and other such mythical concepts, there are still a number of glaring logical inconsistencies staring us all in the face. And before you all accuse me of being a ‘bleeding heart liberal’ – which is actually a compliment, from my perspective; but never mind that for now – kindly note that these anomalies do not, in themselves, have very much to do with migration, or even with international search and rescue.

The first and most conspicuous snag concerns the government’s justification for what is, effectively, an illegal act. As I write this, a certain Pia Klemp – captain of Sea-Watch 3, currently impounded in the Grand harbour – accused ‘Maltese and European politicians’ of ‘bearing responsibility for the mass grave in the Mediterranean Sea’ by preventing NGOs from even trying to rescue people in distress.

Home Affairs Minister, Michael Farrugia, argued that his government’s aim was precisely the opposite: “We need to be sure that every vessel that sails in and out of our ports is observing laws and fulfilling its obligations”.

Do I even need to point out of the logical fallacy there? OK, let’s see how Farrugia’s reasoning would pan out if we were talking about ‘laws and obligations’ in any other sphere. How about... driving, for instance? We all agree that every vehicle driving on our roads has to conform to the Highway Code, right? We all know that not every single vehicle always does... sometimes with fatal consequences. How, then, do we ensure that all motorists observe the rules and regulations, and fulfil their obligations as licensed drivers?

Going on the Michael Farrugia method, the answer would be: we arrest and detain one driver for breaking the law... and then, as a precaution, we announce that no one else is allowed to drive on the roads at all, until further notice, “pending reviews and current investigation”.

I hate to say it... but yes, that would certainly reduce the number of fatal accidents on the road: probably by around 100%. But it would also kind of defeat the entire purpose of having such things as ‘roads’ to begin with, don’t you think?

The same fallacy assumes far more sinister implications when applied to less obviously wacky examples. Let’s say a foreigner is arrested in Malta on suspicion of committing a violent crime. We have to ensure that all foreigners ‘observe laws and fulfil obligations’, don’t we?  Does it follow, then, that we should simply intern all other foreigners of the same nationality as the one already arrested... on the mere suspicion that, well, maybe they were all planning to commit violent crimes, too?

The scary part is that this has, in fact, already happened on countless occasions... sometimes, without even the original crime to justify the mass detentions. The WW2 internment of Japanese citizens in the US followed roughly the same logic; and so did the internment and subsequent deportation of presumed ‘Italian sympathisers’ here in Malta.

Stripped of all its contextual detail, our newly-declared policy on migrant rescue vessels is not very different at all: we are using the actions of one ship – the Lifeline – as a yardstick by which an entire category of vessel can be judged and sentenced without trial. The possibly illegal actions of a single vessel have become a pretext to literally ‘detain’ other similar vessels: whether or not there are grounds to suspect any illegality.

In so doing, we have also ordered the entire ‘presumption of innocence’ principle to walk the plank.

One other thing we have done is rob our country of any entitlement to occupy the moral high ground. Until just a few days ago, Malta’s official position was that Italy had violated international law on two counts: first, by closing its Lampedusa port to a rescue vessel, and then by ordering a merchant ship to stop outside its territorial waters. Within less than a week, Malta has chosen to violate exactly the same laws and treaties, in exactly the same way – closing our harbours, and issuing illegal orders to civilian vessels – and using the exact same excuse, too: ‘suspicion of collusion between NGOs and human traffickers’.

Exactly why that should be a scandalous thing for Italy to do last week, but a perfectly legitimate action for Malta to take today, is anyone’s guess, really. Perhaps our two countries are governed by completely different international treaties and conventions, despite being part of the same European Union. Or perhaps ‘consistency’ was simply never part of any European government’s vocabulary to begin with.

Either way, the most striking inconsistency remains how Malta has meanwhile absolved itself of all the responsibility it is always so happy to saddle everyone else with. It’s not just migrant rescue vessels that have to ‘observe laws and fulfil obligations’, you know. Countries have those same commitments too. So even if we accept the premise that, well, maybe some of those NGOs are not quite as innocent or heroic as they may seem... they still have the noble cause of ‘saving lives at sea’ to justify their excesses or misdemeanours.

What’s our excuse, exactly? ‘Because we don’t want migrants’ might be the most brutally honest answer to that question... but let’s face it: it’s not much of an argument to boast about, now is it?