Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo sanctimoniously declared on TV that he had discussed at length the immigration crisis in Maltese waters with the EU Commission, with the Vatican and with senior officers of UNHCR. All agreed, he said, that Malta was in the right.
Mr Bartolo is trying to create a false perception that the closure of Maltese ports to NGOs disembarking immigrants saved from being engulfed in the cemetery developing around us is reasonable and acceptable to the international community. He cannot be more distant from the truth.
Greens, both in Malta and in the EU, have repeatedly emphasised that Malta cannot shoulder its “save and rescue responsibilities” on its own. This was emphasised as recently as this week in a joint statement between the European Green Party and Alternattiva Demokratika. However, inadequate or at times inexistent solidarity from EU member states does not absolve Malta of its international responsibilities from coordinating safety and rescue operations within its area of responsibility in the central Mediterranean.
It is indeed unfortunate that over the years Malta has repeatedly tried to wriggle out of its responsibilities. We do remember when the PN led government arrived at an agreement with the Berlusconi administration in Italy in order that the Italian navy pushes back all departing boats carrying immigrants along the Libyan coast.
Closer in time the Joseph Muscat administration is known to have arrived at some sort of secret but unwritten agreement with the then Renzi led government in Italy such that the arrival of immigrants in Malta trickled down to zero.
What about Neville Gafà, then special envoy of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat and his meetings with Libyan militia leader Haithem Tajouri of the Tripoli Revolutionary brigades? Tajouri, apparently a close acquaintance of the Muscat led government was singled out in a United Nations report for a number of human rights breaches. He is also, according to the same report, responsible for the running of a private detention centre where many are held in captivity.
It was also reported in the press that at a point in time Neville Gafà, envoy of the Prime Minister had accompanied the Maltese Colonel in charge of AFM Operations at high level meetings in Libya to stem immigration. Photographs and names were published.
Apparently this is no longer effective as we now have to face serious allegations of AFM personnel sabotaging rubber boats carrying asylum seekers in Maltese waters. It is being alleged that the crew of patrol boat P52 cut the cable of the motor driving the rubber boat carrying the asylum seekers leaving them adrift in the Maltese search and rescue area. Hats off to NGO Repubblika for filing criminal complaints. I would have expected the Commander of the Armed Forces to initiate an investigation himself without the need for any prompting, as soon as the allegations surfaced.
The recent proposal of Minister Bartolo for the EU to engage with Libya in order to lessen its humanitarian burden and enable the international community to provide much-needed assistance to both refugees and the Libyan people is positive. It is however to be underlined that this is already being done notwithstanding the difficult circumstances within Libya itself.
The EU has in fact disbursed around €50 million in humanitarian aid utilised in Libya since 2014.
Unfortunately there is no will among EU governments for an EU solution even though the four largest EU countries (Germany, France, Spain and Italy), a couple of days ago, have taken steps to push the migration issue back onto the EU agenda.
Everyone recognises that the situation is very difficult. Everyone must however shoulder their responsibilities.
The Maltese government should change tack and instead of constantly seeking ways to wriggle out of its responsibilities actively develop a close collaboration with those NGOs who have volunteered to deploy their own rescue missions to save lives, thereby filling in the gaps left by the EU states. Aping Italian right-wing leader Matteo Salvini in criminalising NGOs only serves to further encourage pseudo-patriotic vitriol.
It is about time that the Maltese Government recognises that solidarity is not an option but a duty.
published in the Malta Independent on Sunday 19 April 2020