COVID-19 is making Labour’s problem with immigration worse

Economic uncertainty from the coronavirus pandemic, its health risks, and a Libyan conflict that is fuelling human trafficking, is exacerbating migration concerns among the Labout electorate

The fears of a secondary wave from the coronavirus pandemic is undermining Labour’s core support as a confluence of events is putting paid to triumphalist statements of “winning the war” on COVID-19. 

As a renewed spike of 20 cases from the Hotel Takeover party at the Radisson in St Julian’s sparked the charge from doctors for the cancellation of mass events a market that was primarily aimed at incoming tourism matters were complicated when 65 from a group of 94 rescued migrants at sea, tested positive for the virus. A second group of 19 from 33 who disembarked on Wednesday also tested positive. 

The arrivals sparked new fears concerning Malta’s debate on migration and security in the towns where cheap housing attracts unemployed asylum seekers, and the Labour government’s attitude towards public health concerns on COVID-19. 

Labour’s electorate is categorically the most concerned about migration: in MaltaToday’s latest survey, the main concern of PL voters (18.3%) was migration, a concern also mainly shared by those who live in Labour strongholds in the southeast (18.9%) and southern harbour (18.6%), and those with secondary (17.6%) and post-secondary education (18.2%). 

There is less or no concern among PN voters (6.5%), tertiary educated voters (6.7%), or those living in the north (9.4%). 

That does not lessen the gravity of COVID-19 among migrants leaving Libyan shores. Until late May, Libya had controlled its coronavirus cases, but the North African country experienced a sharp increase in cases, with active cases currently hovering around the 2,300 mark.  

Libyan authorities initiated travel and mobility restrictions in March 2020 aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19, as well as imposing a three-day lockdown as a preventive measure during the Muslim feast of Eid on the 24 May.  

Then, with an outbreak in Sebha on 4 June of 62 new cases, authorities imposed a complete lockdown in the southern region of the country shortly after.  

A Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM) study of the mobility restrictions on migrants shows that in 98% of the locations, migrants who rely on daily labour were reported to have been negatively affected due to the pandemic induced slowdown in economic activities. Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli will now impose a full lockdown in areas of the country it controls, after a sharp rise in coronavirus cases.  

Despite the lockdown, crossings are not expected to stop; militias who control people-smuggling operations are not expected to curb their operations, which sell places on the usually overcrowded vessels, often leaving smugglers with a $57,000 profit margin on each boat put out at sea.

With no end in sight for migrant arrivals, the Maltese government is looking to set up ships as quarantine facilities for those rescued at sea

A similar tactic employed in June to strong-arm Europe into relocating migrants rescued at sea, turned into a five-week impasse that ended with some 400 migrants disembarked in Malta, held out at sea in a floating prison at a cost of €1.7 million.  

Italian authorities are also employing the same tactics, with the ship Moby Zaza, docked off Porto Empedocle in Sicily.  

What is clear on social media is that even Labour ministers are feeling the heat from public health concerns and outbreaks of racism or concerns about security after documented episodes of assaults on elderly people. In one Facebook post, veteran minister Evarist Bartolo, who is currently in talks with the GNA to curb smuggling operations, extolled Labour’s “intrinsic socialist value” of treating humans of all races equally, and that while Malta cannot cope with the migrant influx, the island could not lose its humanity. “Socialism is against apartheid,” he said.  

But the onslaught of comments taking him to task could not mask the problem Labour has with its own electorate on immigration. Some told Bartolo that the party had lost its socialist values by becoming a mercenary to business interests; but many others were outright racist comments calling African migrants “trash”, “invaders” and “rapists”. 

This was the week of the ‘Ryan Fenech’ video, in which a man who claimed his parents had been assaulted by an African man posted a 15-minute tirade against “blacks”. “We don’t need any of them,” he said. The scurrilous and emotive rant provoked well over a 1,000 comments on the post. 

But as it turned out, the alleged assault Fenech complained about was not violent: a black man had attempted to speak to his parents and accosted them while they were parking.