Politics and migration
There is a tremendous contradiction in the fact that, while on one hand our political parties seek to penetrate every cranny of this country's public (and sometimes private) life, issues of major import are happily skipped over. This summer, the influx of migrants to Malta has even made it to the international news bulletins. And yet, PN and MLP seem to have no opinion on migration policy (apart from the 'we are all human' hot air).
I can think of three reasons why our political parties so skirt talking about migration. First, there is a tendency to mumble about not turning sensitive topics into a partisan see-saw (as it is commonly put, a political football). This, however, is a rhetorical sleight which exchanges 'if' for 'how': it is surely genial of our politicians to steer clear of partisan games, but there are many other ways of doing politics.
Second, it seems that migration is thought to be too hot to handle, partly because of sub-plots of racism and xenophobia. Again, wrong: contesting migration policy is not coterminous with xenophobia.
Third, it might just be that none of the parties actually has a clue where to begin. This is not acceptable. No one is expecting our parties to come up with solutions for world migration; on matters which concern us like detention and the granting of refugee status, however, they simply cannot stay aloof.
Finally, I think our parties fear that, given the level and type of popular ill-feeling towards migration, raising the issue would play neatly into the hands of Azzjoni Nazzjonali, which is the only party with an agenda - and a populist one to boot (I'll ignore the more extreme views). The catch is that popular misunderstandings are themselves the product of a lack of political debate.
There is a very palpable sense of hostility towards African immigrants. Without ignoring the fact that significant numbers of Maltese people actually help out by donating time and money to NGOs, themselves doing their best to cope, fact is that at the everyday popular level people resent the boatloads. I'm not saying this is right or wrong. What worries me, rather, is the level of ignorance that is evident in the popular discourse.
There is a total confusion of terminology - words like 'refugee', 'racism', and 'clandestine' are bandied about without thought or care. I can see little or no understanding of how the detention system works, of the options available to policymakers, of nation-state jurisdiction and responsibility, or even of geography. On the last, a recent spate of online comments on The Times website said it all: 'Malta should intercept them off Libya and send them back', the drift was. For many, it seems, the Libyan coast is the southern counterpart of Balluta.
I don't entirely blame people for this widespread ignorance. This is what happens when an issue of such importance is sidelined by politics. Politicising migration would mean moving it into a different sphere of representation, hopefully one more sensitive to, say, accuracy of description.
It also ties in with the media, because another effect of the depoliticisation of immigration is a lack of sophisticated media debate. There is the occasional - and usually futile, through no fault of the production - attempt by programmes like Dissett and Bondiplus, and press coverage like the interviews carried from time to time in this newspaper, to draw politicians into the picture. Apart from these, however, media coverage of migration is of two types.
First, we get the daily lop-sided balance sheet of landings. Visually, this means very similar images of very similar boats carrying very similar-looking people, day in day out. We also get numbers - a bit like the temperature readings for the day (and equally seasonal). Both create a feeling of quantity, of mounting pressure and menace; there is very little discernment of quality and differentiation. (We saw this recently in the case of the Simshar incident - in one day, the non-Maltese crew member changed from Somali to Ethiopian to Kenyan to Sudanese, implying that as long as it's black, it doesn't matter).
The second type of coverage depends very much on arbitrary editorial sympathies. It consists of 'humane' stories of the suffering of migrants, presumably with a mind to foster some sort of sympathy for their plight. It doesn't necessarily work. First, it jars with the first type of coverage (the 'accounting' exercise) and usually ends up provoking quite the opposite effect to that intended - at worst, the media are perceived to be in cahoots with the 'do-gooders' (presumably here meaning anyone who bothers to do anything). Second, there is a limit to the efficacy of disaster narratives. At some point they begin to seem stylised and formulaic, and ultimately end up further marginalising migrants as purveyors of horror and nothing else.
Representation is of course just one facet. Perhaps a more important point is migration is mediated through state structures - detention, search and rescue, open centres, and so on. As such, it is a process that should be actively politicised, just like all public service is. Regulation implies policy, and history shows us that the safest, if not foolproof, way to sane policies is open politics.
It is too convenient to avoid contesting 'humane' and/or life and death issues. It also implies that politics should limit itself to clinical or petty matters, or both.