'Full up' is no answer to the challenge of migration

It is in this sense that Government and Opposition should really join forces: to hit upon a common migration management strategy, for the good of the country as a whole

Malta’s migration situation is undeniably a cause for major public concern. As such, it is only right and fitting that the issue should continue to dominate the country’s political agenda.

But there is a limit to how much we can afford turning such a complex phenomenon into a cheap political football. For Prime Minister Robert Abela to claim that ‘Malta is full up’ - and to challenge newly elected Opposition leader Bernard Grech to declare whether he agrees or not - is not only cynical and unhelpful, but also dangerously inane.

This sort of approach only reduces complex issues in to an easy one-liner which offers no solutions.  It also conflicts with the government’s own policy of opening the labour market to migrant labour:  for if Malta is ‘full up’ for asylum seekers who are exercising a legal right recognized by the world community, why is it not full up for the 65,000 foreigners already working and living here?

The ‘full-up’ argument also contrasts with declarations made in the past by the Prime Minister’s chief of staff Clyde Caruana, who in January 2019 - when he was head of Jobs Plus - declared that Malta will need another 13,000 foreigners this year if it is to maintain its economic growth.

Caruana himself even suggested that increasing the supply of labour is a way of keeping wages down: “If we were to keep the supply curve more rigid, then yes, we would see wage inflation which would have repercussions on our competitiveness, and a cascading effect on the whole labour market,” he had warned.

There is also an unmistakable populism embedded in Abela’s approach. Unlike Muscat, who changed tack after the push back debacle of 2013, Abela seems keen on pressing on the migration button for partisan reasons, especially at a time of increased economic hardships in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

It is one issue where Abela can drive a wedge in the PN between supporters of Delia (who prioritized this issue) and supporters of Grech (who include people with more nuanced and moderate views on this sensitive topic.)

But weaponising migration risks sending the wrong message to the country, legitimizing bigotry and racist sentiments. For if the country is full up, does this mean that we have to throw the surplus people under the bus? Does it mean that we should leave migrants stranded at sea, even if their lives are at risk?

Nonetheless, migration - whether legal or irregular - does pose problems.  The latter presents a logistical challenge for our Armed Forces engaged in rescue missions at sea; whilst also posing problems related to overcrowding in closed and open centres.  Meanwhile, the influx of both asylum seekers and legal immigrants also creates pressures on the labour and rental markets.

But this has nothing to do with being ‘full up’.  These are real problems, and no amount of wishful thinking can make them go away. Besides, Malta will still have to abide to international law; and its economy will always require foreign labour.

For the same reason, then, Bernard Grech also has to make his own ideas and intentions clear.

Grech has so far refused to engage with Abela on immigration, and has replied to the challenge by calling for a national conference on the topic.  This in itself is a good idea; but Grech also risks coming across as ‘passing the buck’.  He could have easily rebutted Abela’s challenge by calling a spade a spade; that it is stupid to address a complex issue with such inane slogans.  But then, he would also have to unveil a strategy of his own.

Indeed, Bernard Grech needs to show moral leadership, even on issues where his views may be unpopular.  It is a delicate tightrope, but he can still find the right balance by addressing real everyday concerns faced by residents in localities impacted by the influx.

But Grech’s paralysis also indicates the PN’s weakness on this issue in the face of Abela’s populism.  The party may be too divided and lacks the intellectual vigor to stand its ground.  It also has a history of not addressing these issues when in government: a time when detention was seen as the answer to all problems.

Ultimately, then, the argument is not whether the country is ‘full up’; but whether it is in a position to govern and manage this reality through integration, labour market regulations, and effective policing in local communities; among other aspects.

It is in this sense that Government and Opposition should really join forces: to hit upon a common migration management strategy, for the good of the country as a whole.