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Thoughts on illegal migration

Every MEP candidate knows well enough that illegal immigration is one of the main "hot" issues for the upcoming election. How is one expected to tackle it? We all risk falling into some preset strategy approach or other. Possibly, tip-toeing through potential minefields and with kids' gloves if you're a Nationalist candidate. Possibly using it as live ammunition to level partisan criticism at the government policy if you hail from the Labour camp. Possibly, depending on which other political force you represent, by prospecting viewpoints that range from the "unpaid forced labour to make them pay for their bread and water" solution to the "roll out the red carpet and invite their aunts and uncles over" approach and anything in between.

To my mind, however, the main risk is one: that of tackling this issue, at a very particular moment such as election time, from a partisan viewpoint and not from a national perspective. The situation of illegal immigration has spilled over all borders of sectarian debate and has gone way beyond parties, doctrines and party interests.

The worst disservice that can be rendered to the public at this point is for the government to assume an overly-defensive position by saying that it is already doing enough and for the opposition to debase this to a partisan issue and adopt tactics ever so evidently intended much less at solving the issue and much more at gaining electoral mileage. Not to mention the various other populist, shamelessly vote-catching suggestions in between.

When volumes have been written, even more spoken and debated in our streets, shops and work places just as much as in our political fora, it is possible to lose sight of the main undeniable facts.

Fact: Illegal immigration has risen to such proportions as to cause an unacceptable and, quite frankly, unbearable strain on our physical, logistic and economic resources. I do not mention our social fabric as I firmly believe that our national spinal cord will withstand that and more as it has always done in the past. Yet, if what we have seen throughout winter is an indication of pleasures yet to come this summer then I have no doubt, for starters, that the commander of our armed forces is not sleeping too soundly these days.

Fact: There is no way this can be nicely glossed over really. Public perception is that Europe has not delivered. The government, at its topmost levels, has brought the issue in stark terms to the attention of the highest institutions within the European Union. The response we have seen has, at least until now, certainly not lived up to expectations.

Fact: Whichever way you look at it, we do have international obligations. These are legal obligations and they do not arise simply because we are EU members. Arguing that we have a greater obligation to ourselves and that the international community also has, in turn, obligations towards us are all valid points if brought up in good faith but they do not wipe these international obligations off the slate.

The issue here is one of respect for the international rule of law on which our whole way of life depends and is governed by. If we flout our obligations in one sector what is to stop other countries from flouting them, in our regard, in other sectors?

A proposal to suspend our international obligations may at face value even seem justifiable. Reason, objective reflection and dispassionate appreciation would, however, reveal that such a proposal will do nothing but set off a chain of cause and effect situations much akin to some sort of Russian roulette played by Malta on the international plain. Our country - with its history, culture, faith and with all the endless sacrifices made over the years to uphold democracy, rule of law and fundamental human rights - opting to suspend its international obligations will set a dangerous, dangerous precedent indeed.

It is essential that all these facts are considered equally before any lasting solution can be found. It is also unlikely that any meaningful (much less a "magic-wand") solution can be found unless all parties involved are brought in as an essential part of the debate.

I have followed carefully the parliamentary debate on this issue. It is good for Parliament to debate as it did but it is respectfully not enough. This is not because the matter should not be so debated but because a matter of such national interest, which goes beyond and rises above that of both main political parties represented, cannot possibly be meaningfully debated without the direct, free and determining participation of those closely involved such as the army, the police, professionals and NGOs working closely in this sphere and the local councils of areas facing this issue more closely than others, either because they are landing destinations or because they host centres of detention or residence.

Let us also keep in mind that this situation is one that requires less debate and more action.

No single entity will really be able to claim a perfect solution. It's a matter of sharing views and ideas to shape the ultimate solution in the best possible way. Some ways ahead are already clear now, however:

Getting Europe to talk less and act more. One very significant hurdle has been passed; it has accepted to share the burden - then let it do so, now. The Immigration and Asylum Pact was a very significant step forward and, by all accounts, a diplomatic feat for Malta, the smallest member state. We need to now move from diplomacy to practice. The answer is clear. Make burden sharing obligatory now. With all due respect to our fellow member states, this is the only way forward in this regard.

Not sparing any diplomatic effort to cash-in on our long-standing good relations with Libya. Libya knows it can do much more and should be made aware that using this issue as a way to press whatever issues it has with Italy and other countries is harming Malta beyond measure. Singling out Libya as the main culprit is rather simplistic but acknowledging that it has a major role to play is essential.

Meanwhile, how are we dealing with the immigrants throughout their stay here? Is it just a matter of the most basic of board and lodging and an ETC paper to show they have a right not to be exploited? Is anyone giving them any idea of the customs and usage of the country in which they have landed? If they are rightfully expected to respect our customs and our usages throughout their stay they should, at least, be properly made aware of them.

Throughout all this, one aspect that is not perhaps being given much public attention is that of the process being carried out in order to assess the case of each immigrant. What is the cause of the undeniable delays in handling these processes? Where does the buck stop in this regard? What is being done to improve the situation? This has to be addressed if repatriation is an intrinsic part of the solution.

I do stand four-square with the government's insistence to maintain the policy of detention firmly in place. Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici's arguments in this respect are flawless. By all means, improve the existing conditions as necessary and insist on more direct assistance from the EU to carry out such improvement but do not give in to pressure to move away from the detention policy. Also, assess the full impact that policing such centres is having on our soldiers. They are the ones who face this problem directly more than most of us. Let us not underestimate the toll it is taking on them.

Will all political parties rise to the challenge of treating this as a national issue or will we all be dragged into the usual political mileage game? The coming months will tell. The recent parliamentary debate, on the whole, augurs well but will it survive the electoral-mode test? Whichever way the wind blows, however, we can rest assured that the problem of illegal immigration will continue way after next June and it will only be our country that will have to pay the cost of any political mileage gained by one party or another by treating this issue as a partisan one.

The author will be contesting the MEP elections on behalf of the Nationalist Party.

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