Hej! It’s been a while, but it’s time to relaunch this blog by publishing a number of articles conducted on Malta in April 2017 as part of my master’s project in International Journalism at Södertörn University. These journalistic texts were exclusively made by the method of using interviewing/drawing, a case-specific methodology combining graphic anthropology and graphic/comics journalism. The aim has been to investigate if a different take and focus on news concerning migration may contribute to a more humane and nuanced reporting than what recent studies and praxis have shown us. In the following updates are altogether four different pieces from the project, and the subsequent research report where you can read more about these issues will also be published further on (so stay tuned).
Why Malta should become Europe’s empathetic eye
“The only tyrant I accept in this world is the ‘still small voice’ within me. And even though I have to face the prospect of being a minority of one, I humbly believe I have the courage to be in such a minority.”
Mahatma Gandhi (Young India, March 2, 1922)
[A shorter version was published under Opinion as of July 1, 2017, on timesofmalta.com]
We all know how much the deeds and voice of Gandhi have meant for India’s democratic history and the world of civil peace movements, and one proportionally tiny voice in Europe today is the EU’s smallest member state Malta, currently holding the EU Council’s Presidency. Also a state within the Schengen Agreement, Malta’s population enjoy travelling rather freely, seeking work in and even settling down in other European countries. We as EU-citizens share these privileges with around 500 million inhabitants. We choose through democratic processes how we want to live, who to include and how we delegate our power to represent us. But, have great achievements ever come for free? The goals of a common market in the EU have been around since the signing of the Treaties of Rome in March 25, 1957. 60 years of exchanging ideas, implementing regulations and delegating decision-making has been realised through hard work, compromises and at times self-sacrificing policies for the common good. Although the last few years may have been shakier than ever for the common bureaucratic apparatus, the efforts so far have resulted in a reality where people, goods, services and capital can move more or less freely about. But, the realisation of today’s EU emerged from a shattered or even ‘hopeless’ prospect after World War II. Despite the havoc in our war-struck continent, where people had been forced to flee or face other poor consequences of war, we came together in a united vision built on peace and solidarity, lead by people chosen by people like you and like me.
If we look at the challenges Europe as a continent face today, it is clear that the global perspective becomes more and more relevant in considering our shared responsibilities as humans. If many of today’s 508 million EU-citizens have a direct relationship to or have seen someone in their family affected by the World Wars of the 20th century, how much impact will not war in our vicinity come to affect our future too?
Frankly said, what we have seen over the last years in Europe concerning the migration crisis in the Mediterranean and with people knocking on our front doors for aid is nothing new. Humanity has always been on the move, and war is but a generation or two away for many individuals even in our relatively peaceful part of the world. So what? Let me explain. Considering the vast impact of war on society as a whole, we, will likely have to face the aftermath of today’s conflicts in the world no matter where we turn our eyes or aiding hands. Additionally, in only a few years from now researchers predict that climate change will incite even more people to flee from their homes than the already 65.3 million forcibly displaced persons in the world as of today (UNHCR 2015).No matter the reasoning, the definition says that these people are forced to move, they don’t have a choice to stay. Also, the idea often spread by anti-migration leaders of migrants who deliberately choose Europe as their “destination”, is in fact debunked as a myth. An international team of researchers from the University of Warwick, University of Malta, and the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy (ELIAMEP, Athens) states this. The report, called Crossing the Mediterranean Sea by Boat, builds on 257 qualitative in-depth interviews in seven European cities with persons that have been making or are contemplating making the dangerous journey by boat on the Mediterranean.
Like the situation was for Sweden and many other countries in the EU in 2015, one state had its own ‘migration crisis’, but as early as in 2013. Malta receive less boat migrants today than in 2013, which was a time when they were having the biggest number of asylum applications per capita in the world. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat felt urged to call for Brussels attention, and managed to do so efficiently. With a population of 429000 the numbers of migrants arriving in total may not have been critical, but the small community was visibly transformed and surprised by the events. Sweden in 2015 similarly, when they were having the largest number of asylum seekers per capita, took the political decision to ‘pull the break’ to immigration. Yet Malta has managed to promote itself as an open and tolerant country over the last years and has become famous for being the EU/Schengen state where economic migrants and foreign companies can thrive on a generous tax rebate system. Since Malta is still (until the end of this month) leading the EU Council Presidency, time is nigh to work for Europe’s common future. Their leadership and community could, despite being in the midst of national political controversies, bring something of regional relevance to its conference table. Malta could, if governed wisely and immediately taken into account, become the Europe’s empathetic eye. Why? For example, Malta already serves as the territorial base for many NGOs and companies not only on ground, but also at sea, such as for the nonprofit search-and-rescue Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). Since their launching in August 2014, MOAS alone have been operating with the first private search-and-rescue ship in the Central Mediterranean and have rescued over 30000 lives alone!
Ever since the EU-Turkey deal, enacted March 20, 2016, and other border policies were implemented over Europe to stem the number of asylum seekers, the Central Mediterranean route has become the main gateway into Europe. Many rescue missions have taken place in the international waters 12-30 nautic miles off the Libyan coast. So when recent reports of anonymously funded anti-far right initiatives to hinder search-and-rescue missions came the outlook for improvements look even uglier. Yet the zone within the 30 miles is where the EU/Schengen’s border control agency Frontex has actively chosen to withdraw from despite knowing that the number of woman, children and men to depart on the perilous journey by boat from Libyan shores have kept coming ever since Gadaffi was toppled in 2011. Malta’s positioning used to be right in the middle of the route until EU-policies, a bilateral agreement between Italy and Libya, and changed ports of departure have redirected the boats from ending up in their waters. The search-and-rescue zones where many boats cross are now closer to Lampedusa and Sicily, and the latter is also where the privately funded anti-immigration initiative mentioned previously now wants to depart from. Frontex blames a ‘pull factor’ as the main decision for not patrolling the waters. They claim that reports have shown that simply the sight of international presence within the 30 mile zone triggers smugglers to continue with their activities. A spokesperson for Frontex even claimed NGOs in the area have been colluding with smugglers, a report which in its entirety has been analysed by The Intercept (April 2, 2017) and was stated as vague. Most disquietly, Frontex’s vague allegations undermine the EU’s current border control credibility, and when recent news showed implications of a violent intervention on an NGO-mission carried out by Libyan coast guards, who are the NGOs, migrants and EU’s citizens going to trust?
Is the paradoxical development in the EU’s most southerly neighbourhood slowly becoming the Achilles heel we didn’t expect? As we dispute the immoral breaking of climate deals, shocking outcomes of general elections, or new corruption scandals in our backyards the courageous voices of life-saving NGOs work quietly in the Mediterranean as our true beacons of human hope. In the light of Libya’s growing civil unrest, warmer weather pressing more smuggler boats to depart and setbacks for rescue missions, what if Malta’s historical example of resiliency at sea could awaken the crucial changes that the EU needs? It wouldn’t come to be without international support of course – but if they decide to proactively continue hosting life- saving initiatives and voice the insights from previous victories – Malta could become the empathetic eye of Europe, utilising it’s historic spirit of not letting itself be governed by oppressing attitudes, and as in the Ghandi quote I started from, voice for empathetic courage to save migrants’ lives in the Mediterranean. This is already being done via search-and-rescue NGOs based in the region, but with the EU Council Presidency soon expiring Malta still has the unique momentum to call for, instead of pull back on, the patrolling state- and NGO- rescues in the southern Mediterranean as well as for additional legal ways into Europe. ▪️
by David Johansson