Malta can still lead the way on migration

The government is correct to state that responsibility in the latest migrant stand-off lies with other countries but being right on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into doing the right thing 

Faced with yet another stand-off involving migrants stranded at sea, Malta is confronted by an age-old dilemma: whether to dig her heels, and refuse to accept landings on legal/procedural grounds; or whether to take in the stranded passengers anyway, as a gesture of good will but also out of our humanitarian obligations.

It is not an easy balance to strike. On paper, the government is correct to state that responsibility lies with other countries – namely Spain and Italy – and that, once again, Italy in particular is trying to force Malta into submission by refusing to abide by its own international obligations.

But being right on paper doesn’t necessarily translate into doing the right thing. The cost of Malta standing her ground is that up to 500 people remain stranded at sea under the sweltering August sun. Some 350 migrants are currently waiting on board the Ocean Viking rescue vessel, which is operated by Doctors Without Borders and the NGO SOS Mediterranée, after having been rescued earlier in the week.

Until a resettlement agreement was reached this week, another 121 languished in the same circumstances on board another vessel operated by Open Arms.

To stand on legal rights, in such cases, is also to appear callous to the plight of people in distress.

This is, in fact, the game that Italy’s Interior Minister Salvini is trying to play: indirectly enticing NGOs to criticise Malta’s apparent intransigence, instead of his own.

It is a stratagem that has worked in the past, and even in these latest instances. Malta has already agreed to admit some of the Open Arms passengers for medical treatment; earlier, we had seemingly ‘capitulated’ over the Sea-Watch and Aquarius cases.

But while these may appear to be political defeats, especially from a purely national perspective – where Prime Ministers have always been judged on their ability to directly confront their (local or international) political adversaries – from an international perspective, Malta always emerged the winner by relenting in the face of a human tragedy; and by assuming additional responsibilities above and beyond its own call of duty.

Politically speaking, Malta’s handling of these cases has even opened doors to further possible international co-operation on migration. For the umpteenth time, negotiations have resulted in a successful – albeit short-term – ad hoc solution to the immediate problem. As evidenced by this week’s intergovernmental meeting, resulting in the Open Arms agreement, there is also good will on the part of at least six European countries to take on more than their fair share of responsibilities.

All this forms the basis for a possible longer-term international agreement, through which – in the absence of any commitment at European Union level – a more lasting immigration strategy may be achieved.

Still, this is not ideal: it is the absence of a unified approach towards the causes of immigration from Africa to the EU and against human smuggling, and the absence of a coastguard ready to save fleeing migrants, that we have seen private NGOs heading towards the frontline of search and rescue.

Malta has already played a significant part in this process. We have shown, time and again, that solutions an be found through individual countries who can still come together and sit around a table to discuss matters of mutual concern; and above all, one can still argue one’s point without losing sight of the moral compass, or relinquishing the moral high ground.

Even from just this narrow perspective – regardless of the human plight of the stranded migrants themselves – there is infinitely more to be gained from allowing those 350 people to land in Malta, while the rest of Europe bolts its doors and boards up its windows.

Admittedly, however, there is a logistical limit to how many times Malta can ‘do the right thing’ in such cases. While facilities exist to accommodate such numbers in the short-term, the same situation cannot conceivably be projected indefinitely into the future.

Given that so many lives have been lost, and so much political hatred has been whipped up – here, and in the rest of Europe – over this one issue, it remains scandalous that the EU seems incapable of drawing up clear rules of engagement in such cases.

But sadly, it is now a confirmed reality: after the Commission’s umpteenth failure to reform Dublin 2, we can only conclude that this issue will not – or cannot – ever be tackled at EU level.

It therefore falls to individual countries to address it: and Malta is uniquely positioned to lead the way.