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A nation must think before it acts.
In July 2013, the Sunday Telegraph issued a report on the escalating refugee crisis in Malta. In the previous decade, Malta had seen thousands of Africans make their way to the tiny island nation, which lies just over a hundred miles from the Tunisian coast. The newspaper wanted to get some reactions from Maltese citizens on the way they were coping with this influx of desperate, often sick and traumatized, and almost uniformly poor North and Sub-Saharan Africans. Some Maltese told the Sunday Telegraph’s reporters that they had experienced no problems with their new neighbors, but others accused the Africans of being dirty, unruly, and possibly dangerous. “Every night you see them around here, drinking and making a mess,” claimed Raymond Zammit, while Gerard Camelleri said “the kids feel afraid to play in the parks” and warned that “in another few years, Malta is going to be African.” In September 2014, an anti-immigration rally in Malta saw its participants claim that the “real Maltese” were at risk of extermination due to the refugee crisis, with one saying that Malta must be “cleared of African invaders, who want to destroy Maltese culture and civilisation.”
Although cross-Mediterranean migration has slowed since its height between 2014 and 2016, the situation remains sensitive. This is even more the case as the COVID-19 pandemic has imbued all patterns, events, and decisions related to European immigration with additional gravity. In many ways, though, the tone of the recent past has set the parameters of the response in the present. An examination of that history in this article, the first of a three-part series that reflects on the past, present, and future Mediterranean migration, shows us that any immediacy related to the pandemic must be understood as an outgrowth of a feeling of seemingly continuous crisis over immigration that has featured in European discourse for years. Indeed, Malta’s prime minister Joseph Muscat, who stepped down amid a corruption scandal at the beginning of 2020, told the European Parliament in 2017 that the influx of refugees is “unsustainable” given Malta’s resources—ancient history in terms of the quotidian reassessment of statuses and options elicited by the ebbing and flowing of COVID-19 outbreaks. Only two years ago, in 2018, over 100,000 made the perilous journey by sea to Europe, with 2,262 recorded by the UN as having died trying. In 2019, a ship carrying 49 refugees was finally accepted after being kept bobbing at sea for two weeks upon entering Maltese waters, as Muscat cajoled his fellow European Union leaders to help redistribute the refugees across Europe to spread the burden around. The EU’s migration chief at the time, Dimitris Avramopoulos, admitted that the agreement between Malta and the EU was not a cause for celebration but for somber reflection, saying “The past weeks have not been Europe’s finest hour…If human values and solidarity are not upheld, then it is not Europe.”
Although Muscat’s scheme drew intense criticism for playing fast and loose with human lives, it is thus true that Malta has been on the front lines of the refugee crisis for quite some time. Later articles in this series will tackle other regions in the Mediterranean that have seen greater flows in terms of raw numbers than Malta has experienced as well as locations that have had far more trouble managing these flows than Malta has, but for this piece it is worthwhile at the outset to sketch the shape of the problem in that truly tiny island. Over 25,000 refugees have made their way to Malta since the turn of the twenty-first century, a figure equal to over 5% of Malta’s population of 450,000. Given that Malta is only 122 square miles, this comes out to around 200 refugee entries per square mile. To place this in further context, it is worth noting that, in terms of the US population, a concentration of recent arrivals in the US compared to Malta would be equivalent to the US receiving 18 million refugees nominally, or 750 million on a per-square-mile basis.
Most refugees do not stay long in Malta, moving on to bigger countries offering more opportunities, especially EU countries accessible by ferry such as Italy, France, and Spain. But the impact on Malta is nevertheless profound. These figures make it all the more striking that leaders in European countries, such as Latvia and Poland, who have not faced much migration themselves, have used the crisis in places like Malta to capitalize on the bigotry that darkly churns just below the surface in their countries. They do so even as those nations feature cultures of pronounced outward migration themselves—a fact that seems to escape their political leaders’ sense of irony. As the rise of anti-immigrant populism across Europe has shown, one can make a lot of political hay by spreading the eminently racist (and, nowadays, positively antique) doomsday canard that immigration of non-whites and non-Christians to Europe will lead to the extinction of “white Europe,” whatever that may mean.
That being said, Malta’s proximity to Africa is of course not the only reason it is a target for migration. Rather, it is Malta’s membership in the EU and the Schengen Area that leads desperate people to pay smugglers exorbitant sums to be crushed into dangerously overladen ships bound for Maltese waters. They want to enter, and they also often want to move on to other countries. As is the case with refugees who have risked (and too often met) death in attempts to reach the neighboring Italian islet of Lampedusa to the west and Greek islands like Samos, Lesbos, and Chios to the east, gaining entry to Malta theoretically allows one to claim a legal right of asylum in the EU, as well as access a network of states believed to offer safety and security in the minds of those fearing war and persecution in their home countries. These dreams have by no means always turned out to be true. In an infamous case in 2002, 220 Eritreans deported from Malta were put in forced labor camps upon their return to Eritrea and brutally tortured for months. An unknown number died in these camps. Maltese authorities considered them “illegal immigrants” rather than refugees—an assessment based on convenience rather than reality, and dependent on the Eritreans having no economic or social capital in Malta to advance their cases for asylum. Without overly mincing words, had the international community known and/or cared more about the impossible situation facing Eritrea’s millions of oppressed peoples, it would have been harder for the Maltese government to have ejected them as summarily and dismissively as they did.
The rise of Italy’s coalition government under Matteo Salvini’s Lega party and Luigi Di Maio’s Five Star Movement in 2018 led Africans who originally immigrated to Italy to flee to other states using Schengen’s passport-free movement provisions. For refugees from parlous African and Arab states seeking safe shores, Lega and Five Star was an unlikely partnership that produced a cruel irony: for all their natural opposition, they agreed on closing Italy to non-EU entries no matter the circumstances. Indeed, even considering the uncertain future of immigration policy in Italy following the (in retrospect, predictable) fall of the Salvini-Di Maio government in September 2019, Salvini’s and De Maio’s short partnership produced a new migration pattern internal to Schengen in a direct reflection of how most EU states have, despite lip service to the contrary, attempted to limit their substantive commitment to humanitarian policies. Even modest plans, like Italy’s new government’s one that would give residency permits to refugees working in agricultural and domestic jobs, continue to be opposed by Di Maio, now serving as foreign minister.
There is a temptation among those who consider themselves in the know about international issues to assume that the most vulnerable subjects of war and violence are in the dark about their prospects, vulnerable to the will of history rather than riding astride it. Such commentators could not be more wrong. In fact, some of Italy’s African immigrants have, not surprisingly, tried their luck in Malta, sensing that perhaps a quick and cheap boat ride there will provide protections and opportunities that so quickly evaporated in Europe’s boot. Such decisions suited Italian politicians just fine, as some migrants discovered to their regret. In the summer of 2018, for example, Maltese authorities closed down a cowshed that had been subdivided into rooms for over 100 Africans who had come from Italy via ferry seeking safety and work. Although they mostly worked on Maltese farms (in what one Maltese humanitarian charity, aditus, called “forced labor” conditions), the Maltese government made no provisions in the planning of the operation to rehouse them, and thus the vast majority were simply turned out into the street. They could not go back to Italy, as Salvini, in his capacity as interior minister, closed the ports to any immigrants of African origin—that is, only to those attempting to enter Italy via the nation’s ports, not those attempting to leave the country by sea.
So, rather than tackling the complexities of integration, Salvini was fine with shifting such responsibilities to Italy’s neighbors. This worldview and moral code is emblematic of the swath of hyper-nationalist grievance cultures fixated on African and Middle Eastern immigration that have emerged across Europe. From Viktor Orbán’s scapegoating of George Soros for Hungary’s diverse problems, to Marine Le Pen’s grinning Islamophobic demagoguery in France, to the aimless, mushmouthed sovereigntism espoused by the UK’s Brexiteers: it is always someone else’s fault and always someone else’s responsibility. As with Muscat in Malta, in Italy even more measured and conscientious viewpoints often exhibit a nationalist mindset. For example, even though Salvini’s partner in government, Di Maio, postured at being more kindhearted, he still sees Italy as threatened by immigration from Africa. In a disastrous tiff with France over his support of the anti-government gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protesters in early 2019, Di Maio claimed (with, it must be said, some accuracy) that French interference in African politics is a push factor in migration toward Europe. “Africans should be in Africa,” he said, “not at the bottom of the Mediterranean.” The touching sentiment of Di Maio’s latter statement should not overshadow the nativist belief of his first, namely that Africans should stay in their continent and not try to make it to his continent.
This mindset of the Italian and Maltese governments was neatly illustrated in June 2018, when Salvini insisted that 629 Sudanese and Bengali aboard the ship Aquarius (operated jointly by the NGOs Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and SOS Méditerranée) not dock in Italy but be sent to Malta, where Muscat turned them away as well. Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, eventually let the human cargo disembark in Valencia, ending a tragic saga on a hopeful note. Nevertheless, the Aquarius ended up halting operations altogether due to, in its operators’ terms, “grotesque claims” of hygiene and criminal violations by “some European states”—a thinly veiled reference to Salvini’s instructions to Italian authorities to contrive a pretense of legal justification for not giving the ship proper clearance to dock.
Among the countries on the receiving end of migration in the Mediterranean, Spain has nonetheless retained a notably significant degree of popular support for refugee and migrant rights and related charities. However, there is no doubt that high-profile cases like that of the Aquarius have bolstered a nascent anti-immigration movement in Spain, such that the far-right Vox Party (under the motto “Spain First”) won a surprisingly large margin of the vote in provincial elections in Andalusia, which is both Spain’s most populous province and its second poorest. A third-place finish in Spain’s general election in November 2019 shows that nativism may not be a recipe for national electoral success, however. It remains to be seen whether Spain will continue to accept the Sánchez government’s laudable integrationist policy goals.
With this caveat in mind, however, at least Spain has an ongoing history of cabinet portfolios associated with immigration since 2011, namely the Ministry of Labor, Migrations, and Social Security and, since January 2020, the Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security, and Migration. These ministries have been thus a de jure focal point of national and international governance that Spain has been smart enough to retain in some form until the present day. This is more than can be said for Italy, which abolished its own Ministry for Integration in 2014. Inaugurated in 2011, that office’s second occupant was the Congolese-Italian doctor Cécile Kyenge, Italy’s first black government minister. And, it turns out, its last: a frequent target of banana-throwing nationalist mobs, Kyenge exited with the rest of her fellow ministers when a Democratic Party-led grand coalition government, under Prime Minister Enrico Letta, fell in 2014. Her portfolio was not retained by the Lega-Five Star government, which took power just as migration from Africa surged. Unsurprisingly, Italy’s current government has not revived the position.
Notwithstanding Italy’s backsliding on responsible governance with regard to the realities of Mediterranean migration, its performance stands as more au courant than Malta, which has never had a dedicated cabinet seat for immigration at all. This is a problem. Not only is migration across the Mediterranean from south to north not going to stop anytime soon, but in fact migration across the Mediterranean not so long ago featured a marked north-to-south character, with a number of results that might surprise modern inhabitants of Malta, Italy, and even, perhaps, many of those current inhabitants of North Africa’s port cities. In the nineteenth century, it was North Africa’s Muslim leaders, as well as the French in Algeria, who accused the Maltese of running criminal syndicates from African ports and islands and generally being a nuisance in their communities. Meanwhile, the Italian dissidents and nationalists known, derisively, as the “Italian refugees” (rifugiati italiani) took up residence in Malta and North Africa, setting up cells of external opposition to the pre-unification Italian states. At one point in the early twentieth century, Italians made up perhaps the majority of the population of the city of Tunis, where in July 2020 Italy’s interior minister, Luciana Lamorgese, traveled in order to complain about Tunisia not doing enough to stop the flow of refugees leaving the country for Italy.
For a continent obsessed with its own turbulent history, Europe’s leaders have been woefully unwilling to consider their continent’s influence, positive and negative, on adjacent landmasses. But, like the truth, history will out, and those colonial and influential cross-Mediterranean networks are and will continue to be accessed by those on both sides of the sea’s narrow and navigable watery divide. In the next article in this series, I will look at another small, intercontinental island in the Mediterranean where that history has begun to emerge in the present moment and in the midst of the worst pandemic in a century. On Chios, a Greek island just a few miles off the Turkish shore, the appearance of COVID-19 has taken an already problematic situation to a whole new height of volatility, as an overcrowded refugee camp there contends with the pandemic at the same time that anti-immigrant feeling is on the rise again in Greece.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.