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Worse than pushbacks - Ranier Fsadni

It took many years for the problem to be perceived for what it is by the EU. And it only happened because migration became a crisis for Europe. Photo: Shutterstock.com

It took many years for the problem to be perceived for what it is by the EU. And it only happened because migration became a crisis for Europe. Photo: Shutterstock.com

Consider these two people, both behaving badly. One hands over a child to someone so irresponsible that there’s a strong risk that serious harm may befall the child. The other physically stops a man from diving into the sea to save a drowning child. Which is worse?

Do you know anyone who’d say that putting a child in danger is worse than letting them die? Even if you couldn’t do anything about it, wouldn’t you feel profoundly disturbed at the sight of someone preventing a man from saving a drowning child?

Would turning your head the other way make a difference? Think before you reply.

Turning away seems to be working in the real case of the NGO migrant-rescue ships deterred from using Malta as a base – with the result that, since they need to leave from France, it takes them much longer (around four times as long) to reach migrant boats that need saving.

We know why our government is doing this, we know the consequences. Yet, we’d rather turn away.

And it seems to be working. Five years ago Malta was aghast when Joseph Muscat, then facing his first summer of migrant arrivals, was all prepared to push migrants back to Libya. He only backed down in the face of stiff, legal resistance from civil society organisations and a general shocked reaction that this is not what Malta was about.

But it seems easier to fool ourselves that something isn’t happening. Rescuers are being prevented from saving lives but no one seems to be paying attention.

Let’s be clear. Muscat might have the nerve, today, to lecture Italy’s heartless home affairs minister, Matteo Salvini, about the evils of pushbacks. But what Muscat is doing is worse than what he attempted to do in 2013.

Even this week, with violence flaring up in Libya and a declared state of emergency, pushbacks would still ‘merely’ put migrants’ lives in danger. But preventing ships from sailing out to respond to boats in distress is to make migrants’ deaths more likely.

How does that put Muscat and Malta in a position to lecture Salvini or anyone else? Picking on proper procedures when lives are at stake – focusing on the petty rules and not on the greater ethical aim – is something we associate with hypocrisy and whitewashed sepulchres.

Three years ago, almost to the day, a three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, drowned in the Mediterranean. The image of his corpse, washed up on a Turkish beach, was shown around the world. It was an iconic picture: a small boy, seemingly asleep in a kneeling position, a posture many of us have seen our own sleeping children take in their cots.

But consistency, principle and sheer humanity require that we feel the same scandal and revulsion at what our own State is doing today

Around the world, including in Malta, people swore it should not happen again, not in our name. In places, like Canada, the incident did have a real impact on immigration policy. With us, though, the incident came and went.

Since perhaps we are suffering from a failure of the imagination, let us revisit how Alan’s father, Abdullah, described the drownings of his wife and two boys while he floated beside them.

The small inflatable boat, five metres long, was carrying around a dozen people, he told the Turkish news agency, when its engine failed, it capsized and the skipper abandoned everyone.

“I was holding my wife’s hand. But my children slipped through my hands. It was dark and everyone was screaming.”

He told the BBC: “I tried to catch my wife and children but there was no hope. One by one, they died.”

They had held on to the capsized boat for an hour. First, the five-year-old Ghalib died, and Abdullah let him go to try to save Alan. Then Alan died, so his father left him, hoping to save his wife, but he found her dead. “I should have died with them.”

In case you’re thinking that Abdullah Kurdi should have never put his family on that boat, you’re too late. It’s been said. In fact, Kurdi has been accused of being one of the smugglers (although Turkish investigations did not show this) and that he made money off his family tragedy.

But in his position there are thousands of other families who have been through identical tragedies. Are we going to say that they’re all morally culpable and don’t deserve to be rescued?

Malta’s indifference isn’t special. Way back in 2006, while Europe fretted over the victims of the Israel-Lebanese war (provoked by the irresponsibility of the Hezbollah), the total number of drownings in the Mediterranean was greater but didn’t gather anywhere near the political and media attention.

It took many years for the problem to be perceived for what it is by the EU. And it only happened because migration became a crisis for Europe.

To note such things is to be indignant at how scandalous it is that matters happened that way. We are right to feel revulsion at the hypocrisy and indifference of others in the years gone past.

But consistency, principle and sheer humanity require that we feel the same scandal and revulsion at what our own State is doing today. Not least because the ostensible justification is to protect our own laws and interests.

Such callousness doesn’t and cannot protect our own interests. It damages them. We can’t be indifferent to other people’s humanity without suppressing our own.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

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