When we focus our arguments on the bad weather and on the Christmas season, we downplay the significance and severity of the actual issue, which then fades from the fore of public debates.
by Mina Tolu
Collage by Isles of the Left
How long will this have to go on?
Thousands of people have raised their voices, calling on EU member states to allow disembarkation of the Sea-Watch 3 and Professor Albecht Penckt, two rescue vessels which over the last few weeks have been left at sea with 49 rescued refugees and migrants on board.
The Messages of Concerned Citizens
Various messages have been voiced in these past two weeks, from citizens, academics, politicians, NGOs, activists, and clergy. Those of us who call on the EU to allow these refugees into a safe harbour have used various messages.
To paraphrase the essence of a few of them:
On Saturday morning (15 days after the Sea-Watch 3 had rescued people from certain death out at sea), I posted an Instagram story complaining about the cold and calling for disembarkation to be allowed.
Just been woken up by a short hail storm in San Ġwann. Fuck. Imagine being out at sea in this weather. Feels like 2.0 degrees Celsius. NNW Force 7 winds. Still in bed. Warm enough. Comfy. And while I’m here full of regrets for leaving my proper winter clothes in Berlin… 49 refugees are still out at sea. EU member states abandoning their obligations and leaving 49 rescued people on rescue boats out at sea for 2 weeks! It’s time for EU states to step up their solidarity by a gazillion %. And allow people to disembark! Closing ports to rescue ships is not ok.”
The Focus Shifts Towards the Season and Weather Instead of the Core Issue
Most of us, including Alternattiva Demokratika (AD), only started speaking up when this specific case closed to the 10-day mark. Many who are raising their voices now might not do so in another case. This is the nature of current affairs—shift from one precarious headline to another—sensationalism at its full force! But what about the lives of people?
I’d like to analyse the timing and the messages that we share, and the potential impact of them.
When we wait to state something until things get really unacceptable—when we focus our arguments on the bad weather and on the Christmas season—we downplay the significance and severity of the actual issue, which then fades from the fore of public debates.
Indeed, Prime Minister Muscat himself said that it would be the easiest thing to play the part of the “Christmas saint”. He implied that this would set the wrong precedent which would turn Malta into the Mediterranean disembarkation centre—thus, the 49 people out at sea present Malta as a political victim (Fl-aqwa zmien).
But, we are not calling on Malta (or Italy or other EU member states) to be Christmas saints. We are asking the EU to save lives. We are asking the EU for solidarity.
The bad weather should not be the trigger behind care. Solidarity and equality should be the underlying values of our actions as a member state and as the European Union.
Solidarity with those in need should transcend the festive season, despite the fact that in this instance it is Christmas which has a deep seated religious message telling us to care for those who are in some way persecuted and discriminated against. The bad weather should not be the trigger behind care. Solidarity and equality should be the underlying values of our actions as a member state and as the European Union—a union that is there for a reason beyond economy!
This is why I want to make it unequivocally clear: EU member states need to open their ports and allow the rescue ship to disembark, because they have legal, ethical and moral responsibilities to do so. Not because it is Christmas. Not because it is cold. Whether the rescue boat is out there for a couple of hours or a couple of weeks, whether it is summer or winter, disembarkation should still be happening! Let’s turn the ‘union’ part of the European Union into a reality.
Calling on the EU to Support Humanitarian Action!
The leaders of EU’s member states should not play political chess with people’s lives.
The Dutch and Germans have said that they would ‘welcome’ some of those rescued, if others do too. The Maltese won’t let anyone disembark—because it will set a precedent for future cases, and the Maltese state is very clearly about its intention to avoid such an action. Thus, the easiest ‘way out’ is to shift the responsibility onto the NGOs.
However, let’s be clear: the duty to care stays with the State not the NGOs. While shifting that onus of care, we blame the humanitarian NGOs. And every time these messages are spread, they become normalised: the public is tricked to believe that it is acceptable to put people’s lives in limbo while political talks and negotiations take place.
Outsourcing responsibility to other EU member states makes it acceptable for a sovereign EU member state to close its borders and shift blame unto another.
Ultimately, outsourcing responsibility to other EU member states makes it acceptable for a sovereign EU member state to close its borders and shift blame unto another whenever a rescue ship saves people. But these are political fabrications for not wanting to shoulder responsibility.
Humanitarian NGOs should never be criminalised for saving lives. In a responsible, politically mature scenario, the EU would enable mechanisms to ensure safe channels for migration, so that saving people’s lives would no longer be needed. All EU member states should collaborate on a strategy for peace and integration. In 2018 alone—while there were ongoing negotiations at EU level—2,242 people died in the Mediterranean. How many of these lives could have been saved with the right system in place?
This case reminds us of the urgency to rehaul EU’s Dublin Regulation. In essence, the regulation determines that whichever EU member state a person arrives in first is the member state responsible to examine the application for asylum. This current system puts extreme pressure on EU member states at the borders of the EU like Malta, Italy and Greece to process the majority of applications for asylum. And it results in the closing of borders, ports, reactionary resurgence and dishonest political manoeuvring.
So we need to be looking at long-term solutions and seek to overhaul the Dublin Regulation on Migration. Until that happens, it seems clear that EU values and human rights will not be upheld. Let’s call on the EU to hurry up with their negotiations. People who are now abandoned out at sea should have been let in 2 weeks ago.
Mina Tolu is a trans, feminist, and green activist and an Alternattiva Demokratika – The Green Party’s candidate for the European Parliament. Mina has over 8 years of experience in local and international queer activism and organising, with a focus on communications and campaigns. Mina has also worked within broader feminist and green movements.