Had a humanitarian vessel been a luxury yacht with extra communitarian multi-millionaires, the Maltese ports would not only be flung open but would be providing them with all the necessary paperwork to turn them into Maltese citizens.
by Francois Zammit
Image: Tim Lüddemann / Flickr
This month I planned to dedicate my contribution to other issues that are dominating the current Maltese political landscape, but following the events of the past two days, I decided to change my piece completely. When the lives of innocent people are used as pawns, we can effectively state that the current state of international politics and democracy has reached a new abyss. For this reason, my utmost priority at the moment is to address the disgraceful and scandalous situation of the vessel Aquarius and the fate of the over six hundred poor souls that are currently adrift in international waters.
This particular international scenario brings to mind the highly controversial incident which happened in July 1947, when the President Warfield (later renamed Exodus) left Sète, France, for Palestine.
It carried over 4,500 Jewish men, women, and children, all displaced persons (DPs) or survivors of the Holocaust. Even before the ship (by then—the Exodus 1947) reached Palestine’s territorial waters, British naval destroyers blockaded it. Following this, the British authorities took it upon themselves to escort the vessel to Haifa, and forcibly transferred the migrants to other vessels which were then escorted back to French territorial waters. Those on board refused to voluntarily disembark and the stalemate led to a twenty-four day hunger strike. The French authorities refused to forcefully disembark the thousands of displaced persons until, finally, the British authorities redirected the ships to Hamburg and transferred the occupants to the refugee camps under their authority in occupied Germany. In 1960 Hollywood commemorated this event by releasing a movie starring Paul Newman and other movie stars of the period.
Although both Malta and Italy are also facing adverse international scrutiny; there are serious doubts as to whether the treatment of refugees will improve.
The story of the Exodus placed the British authorities in a negative light and the international public opinion took it upon themselves to openly criticise the insensitivity and lack of humanitarianism. In June 2018, a similar situation is happening with the Aquarius, but although both Malta and Italy are also facing adverse international scrutiny; there are serious doubts as to whether the treatment of refugees will improve. There is little doubt that there will be no Hollywood movie to commemorate this event and voice the pleas of the migrants on board and, worse still, is that public opinion is seemingly on the side of the Maltese and Italian authorities who have adopted this inhumane position.
In their bid to ascertain their sovereignty, the Maltese and the Italian states opted to close their ports and not allow entry to the Gibraltar-registered flag, Aquarius. In their actions both nation states are effectively making use of the dangerous predicament of creating a state of exception whereby the irregular migrants who were saved from a life-threatening situation are being reduced to what the philosopher Agamben would refer to as bare life.
To put it simply, the Maltese and Italian authorities are using the law as a means of placing individuals outside of legal protection. The irregular migrants stranded on Aquarius are being subjected to the law but are not protected by it, thus effectively being placed in a zone of exception.
Malta and Italy have effectively turned the Aquarius into a floating refugee camp.
This kind of predicament and legal paradigm is what effectively allows for the creation of other zones of exception, namely refugee camps or asylum camps; this implies that Malta and Italy have effectively turned the Aquarius into a floating refugee camp. Whereas a refugee camp would normally be found on a specific territory, thus existing within the jurisdiction and responsibility of a specific nation-state, in this case the matter is even worse since there is no national law to protect the migrants on board. We are witnessing how the nation states are using their sovereignty and jurisdiction as a means of avoiding the responsibilities of international law. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception”, wrote the German philosopher and jurist, Carl Schmitt.
It is no coincidence that I am directly quoting Carl Schmitt, who is considered as one of the early ideologues of the Nazi regime and its populist racialised discourse. The new Italian government is formed by two populist right parties—Five Star Movement and Lega Nord—while the current Head of the Interior, Matteo Salvini, is open about his racist and discriminatory political agenda. With regards to Malta, although the present administration does not have an openly racial agenda, it does hold a discriminatory position on citizenship and legal status.
Had the Aquarius been a luxury yacht with extra communitarian multi-millionaires, the Maltese ports would not only be flung open but would be providing them with all the necessary paperwork to turn them into Maltese citizens.
To put it bluntly, had the Aquarius been a luxury yacht with extra communitarian multi-millionaires, the Maltese ports would not only be flung open but would be providing them with all the necessary paperwork to turn them into Maltese citizens. Similarly to Salvini, the manner in which the Maltese government has handled the situation also testifies their commitment to an underlying populist agenda, as expressed in the 2013 elections by Joseph Muscat and his proposal for a push back policy. Although Malta has offered to assist with medical supplies and has announced it would bring the urgent medical cases to Malta, its ports still remain closed for Aquarius.
Thus, in their bid to enforce their sovereignty—and despite their formal support of Roman Catholic values—the Maltese and Italian governments have succeeded in creating a dangerous political paradigm that will certainly haunt them in the future. Both administrations have not only implemented but also legally justified the nationalistic discourse of the far-right movements that are spreading all across the Western world and beyond. I have serious doubts whether the Maltese authorities will be taken seriously if, in the future, they attempt to criticise the policies propelled by the blatantly racist Hungarian Prime Minister, Orban.
Sadly, Salvini is succeeding to weaken the humanitarian discourse of the European Union and its members (and Malta has helped him in his coup de grace).
What’s even more worrying and dangerous is that this incident has highlighted two appalling weaknesses in the protection and safeguarding of human rights. First, it is evident that some human lives are less equal than others. Due to their legal status, some individuals are categorised as worth less protection than those with passports of the ‘right’ kind. Secondly, is the sobering and scary reality that international organisations like the UNHCR or the EU have no authority or legal power to protect lives, meaning that their jurisdiction will always succumb to the sovereign power of nation states.
Leaving the fate of those stranded on Aquarius to the whims of individual nation states is unacceptable. Hopefully, humanitarian priorities will prevail and Aquarius will arrive to the closest port as soon as possible.
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