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‘It does not matter if you’re black or white’

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Last Tuesday, the Government threatened to send a group of immigrants back to Libya in breach of international conventions. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat tells Herman Grech it was all mapped out.

Last Tuesday you said you would not rule out sending migrants back to Libya. Was it a Cabinet decision?

I took the decision and I informed Cabinet. It was a conscious decision. We said we would not rule out any option.

Did all Cabinet members agree with you?

Yes. In Cabinet everyone agreed we shouldn’t rule out any option. The aim was to elevate an issue which had been ignored to the top of the European agenda. We have a very worrying situation and we cannot be left alone. We told the EU it’s not business as usual.

A boat with 102 Somalis arrived on Tuesday and you prepared for their forced repatriation...

...we were preparing all options.

You had two Air Malta aircraft on standby.

The same way we were making hospital arrangements. We also had the option to take them (to Libya) on one aircraft, not two.

Were you just bluffing with your threats of forced repatriation?

It was a conscious strategy to get the EU to listen.

Were you aware the European Court of Human Rights could intervene to stop you?

Obviously. We were aware of all the possibilities.

If the ECHR didn’t intervene would you have sent the migrants back?

A decision had yet to be taken.

Were you prepared to take that decision to send them back?

I was prepared not to rule out any option.

I’ll ask you again – were you prepared to take the decision?

Now we have to wait and see what the European Court says, but I won’t rule out any option.

Those who were lined up for deportation on Tuesday had the legal right to ask for asylum. Didn’t it cross your mind?

What crossed my mind is that our country is being taken for granted. There’s a lot of hot air on (EU) solidarity but when it comes down to reality there’s nothing, they just say the Maltese will calm down after the summer months. It’s the fruit of years of failed policies.

But you’re now responsible for these important decisions.

That’s why I changed the policy, from one where we beg and bow down to everything to one where we raise our voice.

The migrants were Somali nationals who had a good case for humanitarian protection. You never gave them the chance.

Often, it’s difficult to establish the migrants’ nationality. I can’t say if they were Somalis.

Did anyone bother to listen to them?

The process is ongoing. We wanted to drive the message around the world that things cannot continue this way. This wasn’t a sporadic action. We recently abstained on a vote in the European Council, we gave a warning, we called the European Council president...

Are you aware of the situation with sub-Saharan Africans in Libya? Many migrants are being persecuted by powerful militias who operate outside the law.

The situation in Libya is very unfortunate and it was caused by Western countries, colonisers who occupied African countries from where these migrants originate.

This is a human tragedy exploited by criminal gangs who choose to traverse via Libya.

We’ve opened dialogue at unprecedented levels with the Libyan government to help it tackle the problem and treat these people better.

The problem is several sub-Saharan Africans are being kept in secret camps without the Libyan government’s knowledge.

Why do you think I invited the Libyan deputy prime minister over to Malta to meet with the European Council president? Libya’s southern borders are in disarray. All their equipment was utilised in the war. The Libyan government is not after money.

What does it want?

It wants concrete assistance, training and expertise and a number of other things I cannot reveal. We’ve opened a window of opportunity.

You seem to have shifted your attention solely to Libya.

The argument I’ve been hearing from Brussels is that we can forget about burden sharing. That’s what we’re hearing in the corridors – but we will still keep insisting upon it. The EU doesn’t want to take the migrants and it doesn’t want us to send them back.

Leaving the situation unchanged is not an option.

Libya is not a signatory to refugee conventions. Did you ever raise this matter with the Libyan authorities to try to protect vulnerable people?

It’s part of the discussion. Yes, we raised the fact that eventually Libya has to sign up but there are African Union conventions which could be accepted.

When (European Council president Herman) Van Rompuy was in Malta I didn’t say we’d found a solution. I said things were finally moving. We’re far away from finding a final solution. This is quite a big issue – for the first time we’re involving Libya...

You’re wrong. (former home affairs minister) Carm Mifsud Bonnici also involved the Libyan government in 2009. Nothing happened.

There’s one basic difference. The EU used to bend over backwards to involve the Gaddafi regime as a partner in immigration issues.

When the Italian government managed to draw up a bilateral agreement to send back to Libya migrants rescued at sea, there was talk that such an agreement should be drawn up with the entire EU.

At the time everybody agreed with it. Since then there was the European Court of Human Rights (which deemed it illegal).

Now we have the Libyan government clearly stating it is willing to entire into serious discussions...

...the way it did in the past.

This time it’s different.

Why?

The fact the Libyan deputy prime minister came here and they made concrete demands.

Libya had even entered into tripartite discussions with Italy and Malta during the Nationalist administration.

But the situation with this transitory government is completely different.

What are Malta’s concrete demands?

We want Libya to be heard. We want the EU to realise the situation is unsustainable for both the migrants and our country. This is also an issue of national security.

It was a conscious strategy to get the EU to listen

Everyone mentions the fact that 18,000 Africans have arrived, but fail to consider the number of departures. We estimate some 5,000 African migrants remain in Malta, thus failing to give a true picture of the situation and fuelling fear. Why do we never mention the number of non-EU citizens working in Malta illegally?

I have no problem with any person coming from any country entering our country legally and working legally. I have a problem with any person trying to enter legally or illegally and working without paying taxes.

What about those that enter Malta on a boat and have every right to do so under UN conventions?

I think the situation is no longer tenable. Would you leave the door to your home open and refrain from reporting it to the police?

Is it possible that we’re targeting African migrants because they’re more visible?

When the Albanians came over (in 1991) they were also noticed.

They also entered on big ships.

If they enter through unconventional means isn’t it obvious that they’re going to be noticed?

Politicians like citing the term ‘national interest’. In an opinion piece, anthropologist Ranier Fsadni highlighted the fact that the commitment to safeguard human rights is a cornerstone of our Constitution. This means sending migrants back actually breaches the national interest.

Opposition leader Simon Busuttil used to favour such a (push-back) agreement with Libya in the past. He now says he’s changed his mind because of the European Court’s decision, which deemed it illegal.

It’s like saying I agree ethically and morally with you, but legally I don’t.

Everyone loves using the term ‘national interest’ and dismisses the Constitution.

The Constitution dictates other obligations. When I was sworn in as Prime Minister I said I would carry out my duties to the best of my abilities. And I say it’s not in the national interest that we keep carrying the weight. You’ve been consistent the same way I have been and you keep telling me to keep going the way we’ve always done.

I’m not telling you that. I said there’s no tangible solution yet. But for many people what happened last Tuesday was unacceptable.

And I accept the fact it’s unacceptable for many people. I have two choices: either continue with the same policy which got us nowhere in 10 years or else give a signal.

I chose my words very carefully: I said we’re considering all options and it led to results.

Many saw it as a threat.

In our history the only push-back we’ve had took place during a PN government when Eritreans were sent back to a war zone (in 2002).

Don’t you think politicians, and especially you as Prime Minister, have a major role to educate?

Undoubtedly. I have a role to educate as well as take tough decisions. I can’t take into consideration certain groups’ perception of me. Should I shut my mouth so that I don’t get criticised by the media or should I send a sign to draw the EU’s attention?

You said you will be ‘compassionate with the weak, but tough with politicians’. How does it square up with what happened last Tuesday?

We saved people from drowning. While I was being called all sorts of names in Parliament we were saving more people. We used this point to drive the message home with politicians.

But at the same time, you were not ruling out sending some 50 migrants back to Libya. You were going to use them as political pawns. There’s a contradiction.

I’m only doing all that is possible to ensure this problem doesn’t drown in indifference. And I think we managed to put this topic at the top of the European agenda.

At what cost?

I will carry the cost with the barrage of criticism thrown in my direction. The only alternative to this is to remain silent and continue with the failed policies.

You addressed Parliament on Tuesday night and didn’t make a single reference to the humanitarian needs of these people. How important are the lives of these people to you, if at all?

The life of every person is important. It’s obvious... I don’t think anyone in his right mind thinks that the life of one person...

...so why didn’t you say this in Parliament? Why did you just quote statistics?

I was speaking in a particular context. I hope you’re not implying that for me the life of a non-Maltese person, a black person, has less value. That would be offensive.

I’m not implying that. I’m saying that as a politician you have a huge responsibility not to stoke the fire and keep tempers in check.

I also have a huge responsibility to say things as they are. Let me be clear: I’m anti-racist. I was informed a demonstration was being organised to show support for me.

I was clear: I disagree with these kinds of demonstrations. Whoever tries to do these kinds of things will find the Government acting tough against racism.

Isn’t it too late?

The biggest fundamental mistake by those putting forward this criticism is they think the Maltese are not talking about this matter.

I have no doubt they are but that’s why I asked whether you believed you have a major role to educate, that you need to explain why these migrants fled their countries in the first place.

I believe a government that is strong – call me hawkish if you wish – on immigration has far more credibility talking against racism than a government that takes no action.

I’m making a clear statement against racism. It’s condemnable.

Isn’t it too late?

It would have been late if we kept burying our heads in the sand. In 2009 I was accused of the same things.

It would be too late when mainstream politicians shut up to be politically correct and avoid the criticism and refuse to listen to what the people say. That’s when the extremist groups start coming out.

Extremist groups have already sprouted.

The extremist groups in this country have no credibility because we have mainstream politicians from both parties prepared to talk about the problem.

Look at the crisis faced by mainstream parties in the UK, Italy and France and how extremist parties like the British National Front, Lega Nord and Le Pen’s party gained popularity.

So what you’re saying is that you’d rather have them on your side.

Absolutely not. The fact that Maltese political parties are talking about the issue proves wrong the extremist groups who are telling people they’re being ignored.

The far-right feels very comfortable with you. They all seem to be giving you support.

I don’t feel comfortable with the far-right.

But they do. They were planning a demonstration to support your government...

...and I disowned it. I don’t need any support from people with that kind of ideology. Immigration talk belongs to the Left as much as the Right.

People on the minimum wage, the rich, the young and old are concerned with this issue.

I’ve been writing about immigration for several years. The hatred I’ve witnessed, the racism I’ve read through social media since last Tuesday when you took that stand has been unprecedented.

If we didn’t take that stand it would have been worse.

Today we’ve ended up in a situation where a demonstration (against ‘illegal’ immigrants) is being advertised with a Maltese cross in a white circle against a red background, similar to the Nazi flag. Doesn’t it worry you?

I find it disgusting.

On the same forum online everyone is pledging their support to you.

The Prime Minister told them if you want to support him then they shouldn’t go to the demonstration.

What happens if we start seeing racist attacks?

Criminal action will be taken and if need be we will toughen laws against racism and xenophobia. But the idea that the problem will go away if people don’t talk about it is a recipe for xenophobia. You say the problems have increased since Tuesday. I say the problems will increase if we don’t speak out.

You have every right to speak out. Don’t you think you should choose your words more carefully?

I’ve always been careful with words...

...even last Tuesday?

I said I don’t rule out any possibility (of a push-back). I don’t think I said anything to stir up emotions.

Maybe there were others who tried to exacerbate matters for their own reasons.

Are you prepared to tell the police force to investigate this racial hatred on the social media?

The police don’t need the Prime Minister to take action. But yes, they should probe every declaration of hatred.

Is integration a dirty word for this government?

Not at all. I agree with integration and I think one of the immigration problems of the last 10 years is that we’ve created ghettoes.

We need to ensure the migrants among us are integrated, but we need to ensure the numbers are manageable. Today it isn’t.

I’m making a clear statement against racism. It’s condemnable

In recent years we’ve seen the introduction of educational programmes to inculcate civic values and rights and respect for diversity? When the Prime Minister is talking tough on immigration, don’t you think you’re going to undo all that has been built?

Not at all. I think there have been too few educational programmes.

And there have been mistakes; I know of a case during the previous administration where a government official ordered the deletion of a black child depicted on the cover of a book. It doesn’t really bode well for integration.

I think this government has far more credibility when talking about racism.

But by talking tough it doesn’t mean intolerance or hating migrants. Whoever tries to equate the two is doing a disservice.

So how do you reply to those accusing you of fuelling racial tension in the past few days?

They have an erroneous analysis of the social dimension in this country.

If you had to turn the clock back to last Tuesday, would you use the same terminology?

What I said last Tuesday came about following long moments of reflection.

The reactions we received from overseas, from Libya, shows they realised it wasn’t business as usual and that Malta should not be taken for granted.

So you have no apology to make.

What I said came about after long moments of reflection.

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