The bur­den on Mem­ber States is the mak­ing of gov­ern­ments, not refugees

The Malta Independent on Sunday - - FRONT PAGE -

Af­ter Malta and Italy once again reached an im­passe in re­spect of two search and res­cue NGO ves­sels, a so­lu­tion for the proper reg­u­la­tion of mi­gra­tion has still not yet been found. Jeremy Mi­callef talks to the Di­rec­tor of the Adi­tus Foun­da­tion,

DR NEIL FALZON, about mi­gra­tion, in­te­gra­tion and EU sol­i­dar­ity. Do you think the sit­u­a­tion with ‘Sea Watch’ and ‘Sea Eye’ was han­dled well?

On the whole no, it was not han­dled well at all. Firstly, it is im­por­tant to stress that we firmly agree with the Mal­tese Gov­ern­ment that the cur­rent sys­tem is un­fair and that the bor­der mem­ber states have been left alone to deal with bor­der pa­trols.

We un­der­stand the need for sol­i­dar­ity, and we have been call­ing for it since be­fore this whole sys­tem – where peo­ple are blocked and aban­doned – was put into place. We are also with the Gov­ern­ment when it comes to try­ing to con­vince other EU mem­ber states to do more and change the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion.

The cur­rent regime, whereby refugees are obliged to re­main at the first point of en­try in the EU, is un­fair. It doesn’t make sense, it is a bur­den on mem­ber states – there’s a whole list of ar­gu­ments you can make on why it is wrong.

At the same time, we don’t feel that the un­fair­ness of the sys­tem should be a bur­den for refugees to carry, be­cause it is not of their mak­ing, but of the Gov­ern­ment.

This is not the first time that there has been an im­passe be­tween Malta, Italy and other EU coun­tries. Do you think that there will be a proper at­tempt to get a new sys­tem in place this time?

Af­ter ev­ery in­ci­dent we hope it will hap­pen, but it has been like this since 2002 when the boats first be­gan ar­riv­ing.

Many of the prob­lems are about this lack of sol­i­dar­ity, that a num­ber of mem­ber states are not help­ing each other; that’s a big part of the prob­lem. An­other ex­tremely sig­nif­i­cant prob­lem is the fact that Italy and Malta con­tinue to dis­agree, case-by-case, on the way they in­ter­pret Mar­itime Law and who should be do­ing what. This on­go­ing lack of agree­ment is caus­ing all these prob­lems – such as Italy clos­ing its ports and Malta threat­en­ing to do the same.

From the be­gin­ning, we’ve been say­ing that Italy and Malta need to be a bit more ma­ture. They need to sit down, ac­cept that the dis­agree­ments are in the way they in­ter­pret their mar- itime law obli­ga­tions, and re­solve them. And re­solve them not in a case-by-case way, but come up with proper pro­ce­dural rules on how the two gov­ern­ments will deal with boat in­ci­dents, de­pend­ing on how the facts emerge.

What do you think would work from a prag­matic per­spec­tive?

The prob­lem is that the two gov­ern­ments in­ter­pret their le­gal obli­ga­tions dif­fer­ently be­cause coun­tries have dif­fer­ent le­gal obli­ga­tions and they have never at­tempted to rec­on­cile those dif­fer­ences.

When you have two states next to each other, both with a mar­itime bor­der, and dis­agree­ing on what to do with res­cued peo­ple, then it is ob­vi­ously go­ing to cause prob­lems. What we are telling them is to sit down, look at what is hap­pen­ing and come up with guide­lines that will be used in ev­ery sin­gle in­ci­dent.

This case-by-case ap­proach has to stop. We can­not have the Prime Min­is­ter call­ing 27 other Prime Min­is­ters and ask­ing for help ev­ery sin­gle time there is a boat be­cause at some point the sol­i­dar­ity en­ergy is go­ing to dry up, and peo­ple are go­ing to re­main stuck out at sea.

Have you had the op­por­tu­nity to speak with the Prime Min­is­ter or Min­is­ter Far­ru­gia?

We asked for a meet­ing with the Prime Min­is­ter but we have not yet had the op­por­tu­nity to meet him.

With the pre­vi­ous ad­min­is­tra­tion, where the prob­lem was the same, we did point out these points, but there does not seem to be a will­ing­ness to co-op­er­ate with Italy any more. Now it has reached the point of no co­op­er­a­tion be­cause the gov­ern­ments are at log­ger­heads over these is­sues.

It is no longer a mat­ter of gov­ern­ments dis­agree­ing on this sin­gle is­sue; the level of dis­agree­ment has be­come so se­ri­ous that it has be­come more dif­fi­cult to reach any agree­ment.

What we are also very con­cerned about in this in­ci­dent – and pre­vi­ous ones – is that there seems to be a trend to pick on, crim­i­nalise, pe­nalise or in some way por­tray NGO ac­tiv­i­ties as dam­ag­ing to the big­ger cause.

This is to­tally in­ap­pro­pri­ate, whether we are deal­ing with NGOs who are help­ing peo­ple on the ground or NGOs that are out at sea res­cu­ing peo­ple be­cause, ul­ti­mately, we are all driven by our hu­man rights val­ues and le­gal obli­ga­tions.

Sea Watch ful­filled its le­gal obli­ga­tion by res­cu­ing peo­ple; it ful­filled a le­gal obli­ga­tion by not tak­ing them to Libya, but the gov­ern­ment finds it easy to pick on and stig­ma­tise NGOs be­cause, in the pub­lic eye, they are seen as use­ful scape­goats.

So you do not think there is any le­git­i­macy to the ac­cu­sa­tions that NGOs are, for ex­am­ple, work­ing with traf­fick­ers?

Of course not. I am ob­vi­ously speak­ing about the NGOs I know; I can’t ex­clude any­thing, but hu­man rights NGOs do not work with traf­fick­ers.

We try to deal with the prob­lems cre­ated by traf­fick­ers; we try to deal with the en­vi­ron­ment within which the traf­fick­ers ex­ist; we are def­i­nitely not prof­it­ing from it in any way.

They are ridicu­lous ac­cu­sa­tions, and what is wor­ry­ing is that the peo­ple mak­ing them know that they are un­founded and, again, we are an easy scape­goat.

Touch­ing on that, and be­cause you also pro­vide le­gal ad­vice, an­other ac­cu­sa­tion is that mi­grants are be­ing coached on how to get through the grant­ing-ofa­sy­lum process. For ex­am­ple, last Novem­ber the CEO of Ad­vo­cates Abroad, Ariel Ricker, was recorded as say­ing that they do such things. Is this type of coach­ing com­mon?

As I said, I ob­vi­ously can­not com­ment on the work of ev­ery sin­gle NGO in the world and I do not ex­clude that there are some with shady practices be­cause NGOs are run by hu­man be­ings as well. But we can’t there­fore la­bel all NGOs as be­ing abu­sive and il­le­gal just be­cause of some sad episodes. The United Na­tions has had sev­eral re­ports of sex­ual mal­prac­tice, fraud, etc., but we do not there­fore con­demn all the work of the UN.

There is a le­git­i­macy to some state­ments but we can­not use those state­ments to dis­card all the work done by NGOs, be­cause if you look at the work done by so many NGOs in Malta, it is they that run Malta’s so­cial sys­tems. Are we go­ing to dis­card all their work and say it is all cor­rupt?

An­other com­mon sen­ti­ment is that Malta is too densely pop­u­lated, and that this leads to a big­ger strain on our so­cial ser­vices, in­clud­ing NGOs. Do you think there is a limit on how many refugees can be al­lowed into Malta?

I would not say that there is a limit be­cause you would come up with an equa­tion to decide how many peo­ple the is­land can con­tain and that’s a very dif­fi­cult equa­tion to come up with.

But we do ad­mit that, yes, Malta does face chal­lenges be­cause of its size. It is un­de­ni­able and we have al­ways said it. We have consistently told the EU –

and ev­ery sin­gle mem­ber state – that Malta, as well as other mem­ber states, needs a European ap­proach.

We agree that there are chal­lenges, but just be­cause there are chal­lenges does not jus­tify us be­hav­ing in an ap­pro­pri­ate way.

With re­gard to the in­te­gra­tion process, we are see­ing crime in ar­eas such as Ham­run and Marsa. Would this tie into the last an­swer you gave, in that this is an is­sue Europe has to fix as a union?

When it comes to im­mi­gra­tion, Europe can do a lot, but ul­ti­mately you need to zoom in to the small­est level; you need to work at com­mu­nity level be­cause that is where in­te­gra­tion needs to hap­pen.

What we have seen in Malta is that the ac­tions of suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have not re­ally fos­tered an en­vi­ron­ment that al­lows peo­ple to in­te­grate. On the con­trary, we have seen suc­ces­sive acts of gov­ern­ment build­ing walls around com­mu­ni­ties and not en­cour­ag­ing in­te­gra­tion.

For ex­am­ple, the fact that Malta de­cided to put very large mi­grant cen­tres in par­tic­u­lar places was, from the first day, a very bad idea. You do not fos­ter in­te­gra­tion by dump­ing hun­dreds of peo­ple to­gether in a se­cluded space, cut­ting them off from con­tact with the lo­cal com­mu­nity and treat­ing them like so­cial out­casts.

If you do not feel wanted, then you are ob­vi­ously not go­ing to open up and in­te­grate.

Last March, Adi­tus came out in favour of abor­tion. Some crit­ics have called this a dou­ble stan­dard. How do you draw a dis­tinc­tion be­tween the two?

Ob­vi­ously we con­stantly ad­vo­cate for the preser­va­tion of life, hu­man rights, etc… But, this also means that, in cer­tain cir­cum­stances, we un­der­stand that there are other rights as well that need to be taken into ac­count.

When we en­dorsed the po­si­tion of the Women’s Rights Foun­da­tion which, if you look at what they are say­ing we are say­ing, it is not that Malta should fully em­brace abor­tion with no cri­te­ria or pro­ce­dures. What we are say­ing is that there are cer­tain cir­cum­stances where we feel that abor­tion should be le­galised, for ex­am­ple, in the case of the pre­ma­ture death of a foe­tus.

In those cir­cum­stances, based on ex­pe­ri­ences we have had with the com­mu­nity, we think abor­tion should be al­lowed. This is be­cause it is the right of the mother to be free from the hor­ri­ble and in­hu­mane ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing to carry in­side her some­thing that is not go­ing to live.

Neil Falzon

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