The European Union’s border agency Frontex launched a new Mediterranean operation called Themis on Thursday, removing the obligation of the previous mission to bring rescued migrants only to Italy. Reuters quoted Izabella Cooper, a spokeswoman for Frontex saying “Triton (the old migration rescue program) said that whomever rescued would be taken to Italy. Themis leaves the decision on disembarkation to the (country) coordinating a particular rescue.”
Reuters also said “Since Italy coordinates the vast majority of sea rescues between North Africa and its southern coast, the new rule is unlikely have a large impact on arrivals, though it does send a political message to Mediterranean neighbors like Malta.”
The Italian press picked this up and commented extensively. La Repubblica observed that since Malta is a safe country, it could and perhaps should now become a destination for the arrivals of migrants.
Il Corriere della Sera notes the new missions will need to follow maritime laws which require migrants to be received by the state that controls the area where they have been found. “This principle angers the Maltese who have always sought to dodge the duty to save migrants and refugees even when they are found in their area of responsibility.”
In the pre-electoral context in Italy it is sadly unsurprising that anti-immigrant rhetoric is brought to the fore whether to stoke xenophobia or to seek to temper it by pandering to it somewhat.
If this has the effect of bringing in refugees and migrants into the country there is more than the challenge of hospitality ahead of us. Joseph Muscat has always presented the diversion of migrants away from our harbours as a political success. Newly arriving migrants will dampen that success. The temptation for the Nationalist Party to exploit such a rare weakness may prove irresistible given how keen it must be to find easy political victories over him.
This change could unleash again unpleasant racial prejudices which become even more unpleasant if they are exploited by political opportunism and populism. Political parties could end up in a competition to occupy the anti-immigrant political space.
In the current mood of a economic greed, inward looking ego-centrism and unforgivable opportunism, things may get ugly indeed.
Let’s hope not. But those of us who felt relieved that racial prejudice had left the political discourse over the last few years were not celebrating a phase of more tolerant political enlightenment. We were experiencing a lull from our more conventional prejudices because the problem had been quite literally pushed beyond the horizon.