Malta must work towards a solution, too

The government must sooner or later start questioning whether its policy in holding migrants out at sea is really serving the national interest

It is becoming increasingly clear that Malta’s decision to hold rescued migrants at sea, pending a relocation agreement on the part of the European Union, is not a long-term solution to the present crisis.

With space already running out on the three Captain Morgan vessels currently moored outside territorial waters, the government has now chartered a fourth tourist vessel, after the army rescued 75 people in distress on Wednesday.

This brings the total number of people currently being detained at sea up to 425: a fact which also raises logistical questions about how long this situation can possibly be expected to last.

Some of those people have already been detained for over 30 days – far beyond the two-week quarantine period that can be justified as a precaution against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, there has been no indication of any breakthrough for Malta’s demands for a permanent resettlement. Indeed, there is no evidence of any discussion on this subject even taking place with the European Commission at all.

Instead, Malta’s policy has only invited international condemnation, which is only expected to intensify as the crisis prolongs: possibly even culminating in legal action against our country in the international courts. 

Amnesty International has already warned that “such actions appear to breach the right to seek asylum and the right to liberty of the refugees and migrants affected.” 

Separately, recent accusations that Malta’s armed forces turned a migrant boat away at gunpoint from Maltese waters, after giving them fuel and the GPS coordinates to reach Italy, are reportedly the subject of an investigation in Italy. 

Faced with such a backlash, the government of Malta must sooner or later start questioning whether its policy really is serving the national interest. For even Malta is technically right to complain about the EU’s inaction, those complaints do not add up to a justification of what is, de facto, an illegal act of arbitrary detention, which deprives people of the rights accorded to them by international law.

Nor can we ignore the fact that Malta has already received assistance from the EU: albeit not in the form requested. For instance, in 2016, over €5 million in EU co-financing funds were allocated for the construction of a new open centre at Hal Far: which has not, to date, been built. 

In view of such considerations, the government’s consistent complaints regarding the EU have to placed in their proper context. Yes, the EU should do more to address the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its own doorstep… but this should not be an excuse for our country to abdicate all its own international obligations.

Above all, however, it is disappointing that the government has so far lacked enough vision to enact a comprehensive, long-term immigration policy of its own. From this perspective, Prime Minister Robert Abela’s lightning visit to Libya, to kickstart discussions about migration, was clearly a step in the right direction. But it makes little sense to antagonise other European countries – including Italy, which should be our ally in this struggle – in the process.

Rather than using asylum seekers as pawns in an ongoing diplomacy chess-game, Malta must find a way of making its case internationally, without also inviting criticism (and possibly sanctions) for human rights violations. 

Not all that glitters is gold

On a separate note, it is significant that both Finance Minister Edward Scicluna, and former PN MEP candidate Peter Agius, have adopted a similarly cautious approach to Malta’s proposed allocation of €1 billion, as part of the EU’s post-COVID-19 recovery funds.

In Parliament, Scicluna likened the proposal to a ‘prickly pear’: arguing that most of the allocated sum would take the form of loans that would have to be paid back by 2058. “We have to know who will eventually pay for the debt and this is where we have to uphold the national interest because there are dangers for Malta in some of the proposals made to fund the package,” he added.

Likewise, Agius argued that Next Generation EU's grants and loans would be financed using three taxes, two of which – financial transaction taxes and digital taxes – could be increased to the detriment of Malta. “This can be very dangerous for Malta," he said.

Apart from offering a rare glimpse of convergence, these warnings underscore the importance of looking beyond the mere figures alone. It must be stressed that Malta’s current resilience to the economic effects of this pandemic, is also due in part to the success of economic sectors – including the financial sector – that may be jeopardised, if we run blindly into a debt that may carry disadvantageous conditions.

It is reassuring to note that, while the two parties may otherwise disagree on most issues, they seem to converge on the most important of them all: the need to defend Malta’s interests, in a time of crisis.