This article first appeared in Malta Today
Thankfully, by the time I sat down to write this, the diplomatic stand-off over the fate of the 49 immigrants on board the Sea Watch just off Malta’s coast seems to have been resolved, with several European countries accepting to re-locate the immigrants between them. The agreement also includes the 249 migrants which Malta had rescued over the Christmas period and in all, our country will be taking in 74 people. It is not over yet, however, as Italy’s Home Affairs Minister Salvini continues to put his foot down and refuses to accept any immigrants.
Meanwhile, the impasse which has lasted over last two weeks has, inevitably, given rise once again to the ugly spectre of racism. When I told people I would be deleting any hate speech or racist remarks from my wall, I got the usual hogwash that I was stifling their right to ‘free speech’. Now, this is either a deliberate attempt to play the fool or else it is just a dim knowledge of the very clear line which demarcates a reasonably-argued opinion from the sheer, unadulterated hatred of a people simply because of their race.
It is perfectly possible to express yourself about why you may have agreed with the Prime Minister’s stand not to allow the immigrants to disembark here, without resorting to unbelievably callous remarks. Since it seems that it has to be spelt out, when the opinion starts veering off into remarks such as ‘let them drown’, or ‘blacks have taken over our country and will soon kick us out of our own homes’ or ‘if I had an extra blanket I would burn it rather than give it to them’ then it is pretty obvious that we have entered Ku Klux Klan territory. Yet, this is just a minute sample of the type of horrendous, dehumanizing comments, which those who utter them claim should fall under the umbrella of free speech.
What concerns me the most is that if you call someone out on it, they are almost offended, insisting they are merely being ‘patriotic’ which makes me wonder if they even own a dictionary. The hatred is visceral and real, with many openly blaming every single problem in the country on refugees and foreigners, and even more specifically: is-suwed (blacks).
If you are still unsure where your comment lies on the racist scale here’s a little test: Pretend that it is your family on that boat arriving in some Northern, very blonde, Scandinavian country, and a complete stranger is saying this about you. Doesn’t sound so amusing now does it? The argument that is sometimes made that ‘I would never put my children’s lives in such danger’ is rather moot, as none of us living our comfortable lives in a safe country can remotely imagine what we would do in their shoes.
I had to stop reading comments at one point because I felt physically ill at the thought that so many around me think in this heartless, stone-cold way. I looked at some of their profiles and it disturbs me, even more to realise that some of these people went to Church schools, some hold respectable positions of authority and some are the very same people who patted themselves on the back because of the enormous sums of money which this ‘generous, altruistic nation’ (to quote the President) has raised for charity. Maybe sending a donation is easier than actually being humane on a one-to-one basis.
Of course, racism in varying degrees exists everywhere – some places more covertly than others which is mostly shaped by the political discourse of a country’s leaders. But the contradiction which underlies this country is how it can claim to be so overwhelmingly Christian while simultaneously failing to live by Christian values. In fact one of the most frequent arguments used against having a large Muslim population is the fear that they will ‘take over’ and Malta will no longer be a Christian country. But what does being Christian or Catholic really mean – is it just the rituals, the village feast, and carrying around a gold-laden statue of a patron saint in the streets? I have never been able to understand how you can profess to have certain religious beliefs and yet your behaviour speaks of something which is diametrically opposite.
There are no easy, quick-fixes to the immigration crisis: I have never pretended to have any answers because it is too complex a situation and there are far more qualified experts in this field. A lot of claims are swirling around that the NGO ships are not rescuing real asylum seekers but are part of a human trafficking operation. However, such claims are unsubstantiated and from what I can see so far are just being conveniently used to justify the lack of compassion by so many people.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister also continues to send very mixed messages – the same man who has repeatedly told us we need thousands more foreign workers in order for the economy to continue to grow, decided that he would call Salvini’s bluff and refuse to budge on those 49 immigrants. It ended up looking like a duel at dawn with both men trying to outdo each other to see who could sound more ‘macho’. Muscat needs to take a long, hard look at his own policies: are foreigners to be ‘tolerated’ as long as they can be usefully exploited to do the menial jobs which feed the monster which is the construction lobby and to collect our rubbish? Is someone’s dark skin OK if they come from rich Dubai with cash in hand to buy a passport, but not OK if they are fleeing hardship and land on a boat? You have to decide Prime Minister, because you cannot keep changing your mind just for political expedience and to pander to voters who hate others who are different.