Malta should be ‘first and foremost’ in justice and equality | Yana Mintoff Bland

The presence of left-wing political activist YANA MINTOFF BLAND at last Monday’s anti-racism protest did not go unnoticed: raising questions about whether the government’s immigration policies are really compatible with its socialist ethos 

Left-wing political activist Yana Mintoff Bland
Left-wing political activist Yana Mintoff Bland

Last Monday’s anti-racism protest unfolded against the backdrop of global ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement, sparked by the murder of George Floyd in the United States. Do you see parallels between the situation in Malta, and the USA? 

Yes, I do… even though, obviously, there are also differences. In the USA, the problem of racism runs much deeper. I’ve lived there, and I understand that the United States is a country that was actually built on racism, to a certain extent. So there is more violence against ethnic minorities; as well as more State-condonement of that violence.  

This is partly the effect of having such an enormously wealthy, over-funded military… with the result that the military’s excess weaponry goes directly to the police. When you have a militarized police force, the tendency to bully becomes more lethal; and the bullying itself becomes systemic.  

On that level, I don’t think any direct comparison can be made with Malta. We’re fortunate not to have that history, here. This is why I think that we are more likely to overcome this tendency towards racism, which we have been witnessing lately.   

But here, too, we have by and large ignored the necessity to educate for equal treatment and equal rights… to try and move the population towards more understanding of how to overcome fear or ignorance. 

You say we may be likely to ‘overcome’ racism; but on the basis of Monday’s experience – where an anti-racism protest was met with a counter-protest, featuring racist behaviour and slogans – how realistic is that hope? 

We need to address the issue continuously. We need to discuss the realities of immigration, in order to overcome prejudice; because we do see a lot of often incredible prejudice here. It’s based on ignorance, really… and also distance.  

I myself have learnt so much, working at the Peace Lab over the last year, just by helping migrants with their CVs… and realizing the complexity of the challenges that they face. In so doing, I have overcome some of my own deep-seated racist tendencies.  

And that’s what it takes. It takes some humility and listening. And education, basically. I think we’ve failed on that. Our leaders haven’t addressed it; and as far as I can see, it hasn’t been addressed sufficiently in the Armed Forces, either.  

On the other hand, I do believe we are capable of overcoming the challenge. The fact that 250 health professionals got together to say ‘Life before Politics’ over the Easter weekend – when we abandoned people in distress out at sea – and that over 400 academics signed a letter condemning the policy; not to mention all the excellent work done by the Church: the fact that the Archbishop and Bishop of Gozo also offered to provide accommodation for those people… 

These things do give me hope that we could, in fact, be on an upward trajectory. 

What did attending Monday’s protest mean to you personally? 

To me, it was a watershed moment: especially given everything that had happened before. As I said, we had an Easter that was blighted, leaving us with blood on our hands. We have seen an increase in push-back policies, and the denial of respect and basic human rights. And with those three Captain Morgan vessels, out at sea in those terrible winds… it’s easy to feel that we may be spiralling down in our moral standards.  

And it’s easy to feel as though you’re the only person worried about the situation, too. So attending that demonstration transformed my whole view of where Malta can go. Because it was a crowd of young people – a multi-ethnic group – without any vested interests or ulterior motives.  

Maybe it’s a reaction to the ‘push-back’ line taken by the government; or it might be a product of the increased solidarity we felt for each other over this period of isolation, because of COVID-19: which was also an opportunity to reflect on our moral values.  

There is, perhaps, greater awareness that we are all in the same boat, and that we need to pull together.  

So I think we could be at a turning-point; it just needs more persistence… more people to speak out against disrespect. For what is the mark of progress? It’s being respectful – learning to be able to live together, with respect – especially towards the vulnerable. And these people are so vulnerable… 

Government has meanwhile defended its migrations policies, claiming that the intransigence of the European Union left it with no other options 

For the past 20 years, we have been dealing with this issue by crisis management… even though this situation was all along obviously going to happen. The more Western countries sell arms, and interfere in the affairs of African countries, the more people are going to be displaced, and flee. This doesn’t make those people ‘irregular’, or ‘illegal’. They’re not ‘criminals’. They’re normal people. They are doing exactly what we ourselves would do, in their place: they are trying to live.  

And yet, we always deal with it like it’s a crisis. This leads me to believe that we’ve had a ‘politics of crisis’ for so long, because it suits politicians… to get more money from the European Union, and to avoid really challenging Europe’s violent policy towards migrants. And also to avoid challenging the fact that they have once again turned us into an ‘Island Fortress’… after we fought for so long not to be a fortress. 

So when the Foreign Ministry says that ‘we need European support, and therefore we have to leave these people out at sea’… well, there are lots of other tactics that could be used, to try to extract us from this difficult situation. Because it is difficult; I don’t deny that at all. We have treaties such as ‘Dublin 2’ that we’ve signed up to; and we have an EU that clearly is not addressing the issue in humanitarian terms.  

But we have to stand up to all that. We can’t just remain in the EU, and accept everything that’s thrown at us. This year alone, 4,000 people have been sent back to Libya, most of them to torture and premature death. We have to use all the tactics we can, as an intelligent, progressive people, to say that this is an unsustainable and inhumane policy.  

Malta’s race issues are often projected through the lens of ‘irregular immigration’; yet at the same time, it is government’s policy to invite foreign workers to fill local economic niches. This week, it was reported that a number of Turkish contract-workers are on hunger strike for lack of pay. Would you agree that our economic system, in this respect, also depends on a form of ‘slavery’? 

I think that unrestrained capitalism will lead us back to slavery again. Slavery, and fascism. I’m not the only one who believes this; lots of economists have written about it. But if a system is based only on the accumulation of profit, by the most powerful, it can only go in one direction; eventually, it will descend into slavery and fascism. 

This is why it’s so important to realise our responsibility to unite and stand up for equality and positive reforms. Because it is very easy to slide into a downward spiral. When you have a lot of contract-labour coming in, with workers who do not have equal rights, or any form of protection, those people become extremely vulnerable. Cases like those Turkish people, who haven’t been paid in five months… it’s scandalous.  

And it’s our responsibility to stand up and say, ‘this shouldn’t happen in Malta’. We didn’t build a free Malta for this to happen. On the contrary, we built a free Malta to help vulnerable people… 

Some will surely note the irony, however, that this is happening under a Labour government; and that the daughter of Dom Mintoff – a man who was synonymous with the Labour Party for so many years – would protest against a Labour government’s policies. Do you think your father would have felt the same way about the situation, were he still alive? 

My father came from a very poor family. He decided, at a very young age, that if he was ever going to have any power, he would use it to help the vulnerable; and to fight for equality. First of all, he was trying to fight for equality with Britain – through Integration – but when it became clear that the British weren’t interested in being equal partners with us, he fought full-out for an Independent Malta: where the Maltese would be treated with equal dignity as human beings… which was not the case before, under the British. 

That, in a nutshell, was his ideology. And he believed in it very strongly. His last words, in fact, were ‘everyone should have a decent life’. And I think we need to remember and embrace that ideology… 

Do you feel that the Labour Party of today has drifted away from these ideological roots?  

There are many elements in the Labour Party that still strongly believe in justice, equality and peace. But I think some of them have stepped back.  

The same ideals are being upheld in some ways, however. The Labour government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been excellent, overall: in protecting our health, and putting health first… over and above profit. As we have seen in other countries, that hasn’t happened everywhere. 

But I think that today’s Labour government is, and has been – and this has been continuous from Joseph Muscat, to Robert Abela – a ‘business government’. Its priority is to help businesses. And I think that there are elements in business which want to have a divided workforce, where there is inequality.  

So the Labour government will have to take a decision – if it is put to the test – about its own stand on labour issues. We haven’t reached that point yet.  

This is why it’s important that we seize this opportunity, and make it clear that we, as a country, do have this vision of excellence, equality and respect. I think there is a groundswell for that. 

But there needs to be more transparency. What is going on with the arms trade between certain Maltese people, and Libya? What’s going on with the oil smuggling? All those things need to stop. 

Part of my father’s vision was also about solidarity between the countries of the Mediterranean. Not just the north… but the south of the Mediterranean, too. Because at the end of the day, that’s what we are. We’re an island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea… 

There is also an irony in the fact that the slogan ‘Malta L-Ewwel U Qabel Kollox’ – one of Mintoff’s most memorable quotes – has been adopted by the self-styled ‘patriots’ who are opposed to immigration. Do you think your father’s words are being misunderstood? Or could they have also indirectly contributed to an underlying sense of xenophobia? 

I’d say it was a slogan for the time in which it was used: they were Colonial times, and we were trying to get away from being a colony. In that sense, it may still be relevant today: for instead of a British colony, we have become puppets of the EU.  

Not that I’m against the EU, myself. On lots and lots of levels, I think it’s a very progressive thing that we’re members. But certain EU policies are unsustainable, and inhumane… like its migration policy. 

But there is another reason why I think ‘Malta L-Ewwel U Qabel Kollox’ is still a relevant slogan today. Malta should aim to be ‘first and foremost’ when it comes to justice and accountability, equality and peace. We should aim to be a country that is free from ignorance, arrogance and prejudice. 

This is the ideal that is worth our commitment… that all people in Malta and Gozo are safe, and treated equally with respect and care. And we could make this happen. Many of us already live by this code. 

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