[ANALYSIS] Malta faces a new test on migration as Italy’s hard right edges closer to power

Silvio Berlusconi’s declaration that Malta will have to take in its fair share of migrant rescues evokes memories of past stand-offs with Italy. Is Joseph Muscat’s government about to suffer the same fate?

Photo: MOAS/Darrin Zammit Lupi
Photo: MOAS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

Before 2012, the Gonzi administration conducted its diplomacy on migration in the shadow of a hawkish Berlusconi-led government in Italy, which included the anti-immigrant right-wing the Lega Nord. Both the Nationalist government and the Labour Opposition then supported a controversial Italian policy of turning back to Libya illegal migrants found on the high seas in the Mediterranean.

The policy was later found in breach of fundamental human rights.

But the two governments also squabbled over responsibility for migrants rescued on the high seas, with then Opposition leader Joseph Muscat calling on Gonzi to protect the national interest in the same way the Italians were doing.

Underlying the dispute between Malta and Italy was the latter’s insistence that Malta should take in all immigrants rescued in its oversized search and rescue area: at some 250,000 square kilometres, roughly the size of Great Britain, spanning from Tunisia to Greece. Malta insisted that rescued migrants should be taken to the first safe port of call, which in many cases would be Lampedusa, even if the migrants had been saved in Malta’s SAR.

Silvio Berlusconi has declared that migrants saved close to Malta ‘will have to be taken to and disembarked in Malta’
Silvio Berlusconi has declared that migrants saved close to Malta ‘will have to be taken to and disembarked in Malta’

It was only after a four-day stand-off and a telephone conversation between Gonzi and Silvio Berlusconi, that Italy’s Justice Minister Roberto Maroni gave in to accept 140 migrants stranded on the high seas on the Turkish cargo ship Pinar E, into Lampedusa in April 2009.

A second major standoff took place in April 2011 when a boat of 171 immigrants was rescued by the AFM near Lampedusa. The Italian authorities refused entry, forcing the Maltese vessel to bring the migrants into Malta. Joseph Muscat actually praised Italy for defending its national interest by blocking the boat’s entry.

Subsequently, following a comment by Silvio Berlusconi which suggested that the group should have been rescued by the Italians, Muscat called on Gonzi to send the migrants to Italy. Gonzi rubbished the suggestion: “Since when have we been treating human beings as merchandise... How can one go onto a child or a man and tell them, ‘I saved you from death, now tonight I’m going to pack you up, put you in a plane and send you to Italy. Doesn’t he know that to do this, one would be violating fundamental human rights?”

The elusive Libyan solution

As the flow of boat people grew after 2004, reaching a peak in Malta of 2,775 asylum seekers rescued in 2008, Italy sought to block the flow through a controversial agreement with Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. In 2009 Italy started a pushback policy to Libya, which was later declared illegal by the European Court of Human Rights in 2012.

Although Malta never adopted a similar policy, a day after Italy repatriated the first group of migrants, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici came out supporting Italy’s agreement with Libya. Speaking during a debate at the European Parliament in 2010 on the incidents in the Mediterranean, even Nationalist MEP Simon Busuttil said the Italian policy was giving results. “Although it was understandable to ask questions on Italy’s policy of returning migrants to Libya, it is indisputable that, as a result of these returns, the number of arrivals this year was down on last year and so were the number of tragic deaths,” he told MEPs.

The agreement did result in a lull in migrant arrivals in 2010. But Gaddafi started using the agreement to extort more concessions from Italy and the EU, threatening to “turn Europe black” if his demands for money were not accepted.

Numbers immediately picked up after the collapse of the Libyan regime in the Arab spring. Ironically eight years down the line, Italy and the EU are still seeking a durable agreement with Libya to stop the migration flow.

Muscat toys with pushbacks

It was a deliberate choice on Muscat’s part to turn migration into the main issue of the MEP elections held in June, 2009.

Three months before his first electoral test as PL leader, Muscat sent shockwaves by presenting a hawkish 20-point plan to parliament which vaguely hinted at Malta suspending its “international obligations” if numbers of migrants were to reach a critical point. He even suggested putting the plan to a referendum and letting the people decide.

On the eve of the 2013 general elections, in a quick question-and-answer session Muscat made it clear that he would not “exclude pushbacks”. On his part Lawrence Gonzi answered “no” when asked if he favoured a pushback policy.

Dilemma aboard the Salamis
Dilemma aboard the Salamis
Dilemma aboard the Salamis
Dilemma aboard the Salamis

Muscat came close to honouring his pre-electoral pledge by laying preparations for the pushback of a number of migrants to Libya soon after he was elected: but his plan was stopped through an injunction from the European Court of Human Rights. Muscat justified his actions by insisting that this was a way to make Europe “wake up and smell the coffee”.

In August 2013, 102 migrants, mainly from North Africa, were rescued from a boat 39km off the Libyan coast by the Liberian-registered tanker Salamis. Italy finally accepted the migrants left stranded on the tanker, allowing them to disembark on the Sicilian coast after Malta refused them entry for three days. Ironically Muscat’s hard-line stance on the Salamis also earned him the praise of the Lega Nord in Italy.

A new dawn

What really led to Malta being relieved of the pressure of continuous boat arrivals was the Italian reaction to a tragedy at sea that led to over 400 refugees from Syria and Palestine losing their lives in the Lampedusa shipwreck
What really led to Malta being relieved of the pressure of continuous boat arrivals was the Italian reaction to a tragedy at sea that led to over 400 refugees from Syria and Palestine losing their lives in the Lampedusa shipwreck

What really led to Malta being relieved of the pressure of continuous boat arrivals was the Italian reaction to a tragedy at sea that led to over 400 refugees from Syria and Palestine losing their lives in the Lampedusa shipwreck.

Unlike previous right-wing governments, the Italian government under Prime Ministers Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni was no longer engaged in bickering with their Maltese counterparts over who is responsible for saving lives at sea in the Mediterranean.

“The Italian coast guard has been ordered by the Italian government to intervene and collect any boat people that even the Maltese authorities are technically obliged to intervene and collect,” a senior government official told MaltaToday in August 2014.

Operation Mare Nostrum, launched after the Lampedusa tragedy of 2013, included the use of amphibious ships, unmanned drones and long-range helicopters with infrared equipment, with six navy ships, each with crews of between 80 to 250 men. The highly successful rescue operations had seen some 80,000 migrants arrive in Italy in 2014 and practically no boats in Malta.

Yet despite the drop in the number of arrivals, the Maltese army remained pro-active in saving lives in the Mediterranean. In the meantime Muscat seems to have realised that celebrating Malta’s heroic role in saving migrant life earns Malta more respect as a nation and more legitimacy to our demands than calling on others to “smell the coffee” and threatening pushbacks.

In this sense Muscat has become much more like his predecessor Lawrence Gonzi, who also celebrated Malta’s role in saving lives. But unlike Gonzi, Muscat could afford to do this without even having to worry about the arrivals of boats in Malta.

Although operation Mare Nostrum was terminated by the end of 2014 and replaced by a downscaled EU operation called Triton, Malta still did not see any more arrivals in subsequent years.

In March 2015 Joseph Muscat openly admitted threatening to push back irregular migrants had been a mistake.

The calm before the storm?

The Maltese and Italian governments have repeatedly denied accusations hailing from the Italian right-wing Opposition, that this was the result of an agreement linking migration with oil exploration rights, insisting that this was the result of close collaboration between the two countries.

As a result of the ‘good relationship’ with three successive centre-left Italian governments, Malta has been spared from boat arrivals in the past four years.  Most asylum seekers in the past years have reached us safely. ln 2016 Malta accepted asylum applications from 1255 people who arrived here by plane. Yet there was no drama, which triggers racist instincts associated with boat arrivals.

This breathing space has exorcised the spectre of rabid racism and xenophobia and has given Malta time to start enacting integration policies, an area where previous Nationalist governments had failed to act. It has also contributed to a shift in Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s discourse from advocating push back in 2013 to a more humanitarian tone.

Matteo Salvini, the new leader of Lega Nord
Matteo Salvini, the new leader of Lega Nord

Italian elections may change all that.

Faced with an Italian right-wing government, Muscat may strive for common ground on a tougher stance uniting the two governments against European migration policies while seeking new agreements with Libya to keep migrants from making the crossing.

But for Muscat it would be more difficult to evoke anti-immigrant nationalism now that he has opted for an open labour market and an economic model thriving on foreign labour and wealth generated from the sale of Maltese citizenship.

Still for Labour any confrontation with a centre-right Italian government may represent an opportunity to strike against the PN’s international allegiance to the European People’s Party which includes Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. This could serve short-term electoral interests months before MEP elections in Malta.