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Putting ‘geo’ into geopolitics - George Vella

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

The issue of migration is very topical these days. Migration is part and parcel of the history of human evolution. Today it has other important connotations. It is a phenomenon with strong political, social, environmental and economic impacts.

 It is a global phenomenon and no one would predict that it will ever stop. Certain parts of the globe are more exposed to this phenomenon depending on the geography, political history, level of development, and impact of environmental changes.

The Mediterranean is one such region, as we all know from bitter experience. We have been living with this reality for quite a number of years now, and though going on figures of arrivals on our shores, the situation now is much better than it was 10 years ago, the issue has become more acute as more and more European countries decide to close their borders to incoming migrants, most importantly our closest neighbour Italy.

It has to be pointed out that anti-migrant sentiments, especially those in countries in the east of the European Union, next to the Balkans, arose not because of the flow of migrants from Africa, but following the ‘deluge’ of migrants coming towards their countries following the war in Syria, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ‘invitation’ to one million of them to go to Germany.

The flow from Africa is just a fraction of a percentage point of the millions of people migrating between countries in the African continent itself. This is no consolation. Whereas the flow of migrants from the east was measured in millions, that from the African continent averaged about the 500,000 figure. Recently following the implementation of measures and programmes within the EU global policy, the effects of the Africa Trust Fund, and agreements (‘compacts’) with Sahel countries and the UNHCR to persuade would-be migrants to receive a sum of money and go back home, rather than crossing over into Libya and undergo the arduous journey to Europe, figures have dwindled significantly.

What I want to say is that the numbers themselves do not present any demographic threat to the European Union countries themselves, many of which, ironically, have a negative demographic growth rate and are in dire need of foreign labour. It could be the social impact and the lack of even distribution in any particular country which accepts these migrants, that leads to reactions from the local population, and to politicians propagating a populist ideology to capitalise on these feelings and perceptions.

Some years back the flow of migrants from the East practically threatened the institutions of the EU, with the existence and functioning of the Schengen system being brought into question. Negotiations with Turkey then helped bring the situation under control.

This episode however showed how unreliable certain EU countries were when it came to promises to take in migrants. In spite of promising to accept a number of migrants, decided upon freely by each country, with no imposition of numbers or quotas from the EU, till this very day only a very small number of countries have lived up to their promises. So much for European solidarity.

Italy and Malta have had their fair share of the problem over the years. We somehow managed to work together. And so we should do in the future

Malta fulfilled what it promised and kept its word, even though in the early years when we were experiencing bodies being washed up on our shores, and the arrival figures were daunting, we found no solace from other countries except from Italy.

Italy and Malta have had their fair share of the problem over the years. We somehow managed to work together. And so we should do in the future. It does not make sense to quarrel, litigate and engage in finger pointing between us. The situation demands that we present a united front to persuade the other members of the EU that they have to translate the much talked about ‘solidarity’ into practice here and now.

It is not my remit to applaud or criticise the position taken by the Italian government, but I have no hesitation in expressing my full backing to the position taken by Maltese government, fully conscious of the many implications, be they political, humanitarian, moral, and legal, that such a stand implies.

I would also, with all due respect, like to ask all those who have criticised this stand to reflect on certain aspects of the challenge Malta is facing. Before proceeding, I have to unequivocally express my full belief in the honest, principled, and genuine intentions of such persons, and respect their views.

Like them I too would be most happy to welcome the largest number of migrants, and in the most Christian spirit offer them the best of conditions, which as fellow human beings they deserve, and the best quality of life and opportunities they dreamed of finding and achieving before they set out on their death-defying journeys.  

Tim Marshall, in his recent bestseller Prisoners of Geography, made the point that all political leaders are constrained by geography, and to understand political decisions and actions one should put back ‘geo’ into geopolitics.

That is why we do not feel morally or politically responsible for migration in Australasia. It is a question of distance. We are too far away. As to the migration in the Mediterranean, we are of course concerned, because it is our region. However our political actions are determined by another geographical factor: territorial size. Both size and distance are geographical factors we cannot ignore.

On top of this consideration there are also truisms that cannot be ignored. The Latin maxim Nemo dat quod non habet (No one can give that which he does not possess) should also be applied to our country’s situation. In medical circles one of our fundamental principles was that however well intentioned, we should not expose ourselves to self-harm to go beyond the call of duty, to help others, however extreme the situation.

These are the principles the Maltese government is applying, conscious of the geographical size and the ‘carrying capacity’ and the  limits to the ‘absorptive capacity’ our country has, as well as the imperative to safeguard our country’s social, demographic, and economic  status from becoming irreparably damaged by unregulated and uncontrolled migration, compounded by the subsequent inevitable exploitation of our country as a ‘soft entry point’ by unscrupulous, intelligent and criminal human traffickers once they sense our weakness.

I am in favour of doing all in our power to rally the EU countries to cooperate in facing this humanitarian challenge, as we have always done, and as happened only recently. We have always preached ‘burden sharing’ and ‘proportional distribution’ of migrants among all member states.

 We have always shouldered our fair share and stood by our promises. I am sure we will continue to do so. However much we would like to, we cannot ignore geography, size, available means, and above all the best interests of our citizens. 

George Vella is a former foreign minister.

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