This is a speech I delivered earlier today at the Crossroads Europe Conference on EU Migration and Asylum Policy and the Public Debate organised by the Union of European Federalists.
Thank you, Union of European Federalists for organising this important discussion today.
As with every political question, the underlying determinant of how this political question is answered is how migration is perceived. I will focus on the experience I am most familiar with, the experience of migration here in Malta. It may not be representative of all realities but at least in the Mediterranean, patterns emerge that are useful tools for analysis.
Malta is a small island state in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. That basic reality conditions the way the people who live in Malta perceive themselves. The fact that it is small means that traditionally the population has been fairly homogenous, local versions of the language are, by and large, mutually intelligible, religious, and folkloristic expressions indistinguishable north to south and east to west.
Any differences over centuries are neutralised by the easy distinction from the foreigner in history and legend either as an occupying coloniser or a marauding pirate, defined both by their motivation to take away from the people of Malta what they perceive to be theirs (their crops, their children, their autonomy, their freedom) and by their alien distinction (race, religion, language, otherness).
As the popular memories of history and legend tend to do, these give shape to simplistic and over-simplified recollections of the past. They gloss over the negotiation and interaction between the native-born and wave upon wave of people who settled here, intermarried, and assimilated in the local culture, enriching it and making it what it is today.
The memory of history that is chosen by elites to justify their policies is built like a cautionary tale, a parable, a nursery story, with twists and turns, dark pages of despair when Malteseness was in a precarious state of near-extinction, and a happy ending: today, when we are what we are and we are the best we could ever have been.
Consider the iconography of the mobilised support for the national football team. I use the example because football is very seasonal right now. You’re not likely to see Malta play at top seed international tournaments but the status of perpetual underdogs, holding their head up high in the face of what others might reasonably consider humiliation suits the narrative of the edge of disaster just fine.
At these sorts of events, Maltese supporters rally behind the so-called Maltese eight-pointed cross which is less a symbol of Malta and more a Crusading rallying image. On Malta, the last vestiges of the Crusades, of the world-defining battle between Christianity and Islam, were being engaged in battle in the second half of the 16th Century, 400 years after much of the rest of Europe had started to lose interest.
And right up to the end of the 18th Century, when Europe was reading Deists and Enlightenment philosophers and banishing the ancien regime through revolution, Malta’s economy still depended on piracy, licensed to requisition the property and enslave the liberty of so-called ‘infidels’.
In collective memory then, despite the evidence of real historical experience, there is a pervasive sense of urgent self-preservation, that Maltese identity, its distinctiveness, its very existence, are constantly on the brink of being wiped out by foreign enemies.
Late 20th and 21st Century migration flows are cast in these deep-rooted and utterly inadequate paradigms. Young women, men, children, even newborns on rickety boats taking water are miscast as marauding pirates or infidel invaders looking to come here and make our home more suitable for them and, by implication, unsuitable for us to whom it rightly belongs.
Naturally, this perception and this narrative only last until the moment the young women, men, children, and newborns are seen in person. Few are hard-hearted enough to continue to perceive danger when they witness first-hand the suffering of the migrants arriving. Many are aware that once they will see the migrants arrive, they would not be able to bring themselves to insist that they are abandoned again to their fate at sea.
This is why for the perception of migrants as aliens and as enemies intent on our annihilation as a distinct culture to persist, migrants must be prevented from landing on our shores by any means necessary.
Because the question today is less about the historical and anthropological context that conditions or justifies people’s warped perceptions of migrants and migration. The question is about how those warped perceptions are exploited by elites to further their views and their policies.
I am suggesting therefore that for as long as migrants are a vague idea that stays on the other side of our horizon, it is, in the cultural context here, easy and popular to feel indifference if not outright hostility to their fate.
I am also suggesting that fertile ground is sowed by elites to mobilise support and popularity. That is achieved through scapegoating, fearmongering, and whipping up mass hysteria. Because for every marauding Turk, every raping and looting infidel, there has to be a heroic knight, a brave patriot to whom we must turn to save us. And the status of the knight and the patriot depend on the existence, perceived if not real, of an enemy they are required to vanquish.
In the Maltese context, I would not immediately blame the formal and organised media for this, not most of it anyway. By and large, and after years of error-prone self-education, the independent media in Malta has developed genuine sympathy for the vulnerability and the unfairness suffered by migrants whether they ever make it ashore here or not.
Although I’d feel more comfortable if my claims were backed up by research, on the back of anecdotal evidence I feel confident enough to suggest that tolerance and understanding of migrants and the defense of their dignity if not much else, is a middle-class attitude that exists within the limited space which in Malta is comfortable with independent media.
The operative word there is ‘limited’. Malta’s formal media is mistrusted by the wider population. 78% of respondents to the most recent Eurobarometer survey said they believed news or information they are given misrepresents reality or is even false. Only 24% of the population believe that the media is free from political pressure and 71% said the media in Malta does not provide a diversity of views.
Compare this now with a trust rating of a whopping 71% in Malta’s standing army. More about the army in a bit.
Against the background of pervasive mistrust of independent media, the conscious effort of media operators not to give a platform to xenophobia and racist prejudice is perceived, ironically, as censorship of entirely legitimate views.
Consider for example the policy of Malta’s newspaper of record, the Times of Malta, not to allow comments beneath online reports about migration or of any matter involving anyone of a different race. They do that because they report that the moment they publish by way of example a story about migrants calling for help at sea they are flooded with racist, hateful commentary that apart from being in many cases illegal, legitimises horrific and inhuman “opinions”. What happens freely over social media, particularly Facebook, confirms this claim.
The determination of formal media not to carry this sort of content is commendable. But it also makes victims of the racists who misrepresent their cruelty and their evil as the first casualty of an alien invasion. Their liberties, they claim, are already being taken away from them by the migrants helped by the fifth columnists in the media. And they claim that this, of course, is all the more reason to fight back.
The thing to consider is that with such pervasive mistrust of the conventional and independent media, people find other ways of communicating their hatred. As everywhere there’s a loony fringe that poses no immediate risk of infiltration into mainstream politics but that shows just how easily politics of extreme hatred can fit in the national discourse. We have here a neo-Nazi party that uses as its symbol a corruption of the Blutfahne replacing the swastika with the Maltese cross. Its leader is not so much a holocaust denier as a holocaust apologist. And yet he is something of a folk hero now sanctified by a local priest who preaches at neo-Nazi rallies about the preservation of our precarious Christian identity.
And yet, that’s not why I’m worried. Most people may, at least so far, not seriously consider making our Hitler impersonator a prime minister or a dictator. But they will go to their mainstream politicians with the prejudices, the rhetoric, and the expectation of firm action that far-right politics feed them.
Something particular perhaps to Malta’s political environment is that our two-party system means that for any party to get any access to political power it must please at any time at least half the population of the island. It is safe to say that winning elections here is hard if you don’t have the support of at least some rabid racists.
Another reality is not unique to Malta. We have weak leadership in our present generation of politicians who perceive their job to be chasing after crowds wherever the mob is rushing to so that they can jump in front of them and pretend to lead them. Whatever their attitudes may be, these non-leaders have expressed opinions they fully expected their audiences to appreciate and support.
Consider a Maltese prime minister who spoke on television in defense of migration. He said we needed people to collect the rubbish and work in the hot sun because that would be beneath the dignity of the native population. Consider his successor who used the term “full up” concerning a certain type of migrant even as his government provided subsidies to support the importation of temporary labour. The line drawn was between black Africans deemed unworthy to work here and brown people that could be brought here on the condition of immediate repatriation when they were no longer needed.
And, as with the rest of the world, the covid pandemic emphasised these leadership weaknesses in the face of popular attitudes. In the frightful, frightening days of the first lockdown in 2020, as people huddled in their homes afraid of a pestilence no one understood, Malta’s government used migrants as scapegoats, portraying them as carriers of disease. Migrants who lived in temporary shelters in Malta were rounded up and ghettoised under armed guard removed from their only sources of income and survival.
And migrants at sea were abandoned to their fate, the rescue operations of the army held back or used to push migrants back illegally to war, torture, and slavery in Libya.
When activists challenged the government and the army for their conduct, the resources of the state were mobilised against them. The prime minister used addresses to the nation on public TV to accuse activists of betraying their country and undermining the effort to stop the spread of disease. All those enthusiastic supporters of neo-Nazis and haters of all things foreign got busy on their social media accounts, on their phones, and out in the street heckling activists, threatening them, spitting at them in the street. That’s not to speak of the unspeakable treatment reserved for black people.
It was the word of activists spoken over mistrusted independent media against the word of the army that enjoys the sort of support here most modern countries do not recall having since 1914.
Consider the case of Lassana Souleymane Cisse, a migrant in his early 40s, who lived quietly in a temporary shelter and walked to and from the nearest village for supplies. One night as he walked with other residents, he was shot in the back and killed by two off-duty soldiers who had a habit of driving by black people to shoot at them for sport. While the soldiers are out on bail waiting for a trial, they deny any wrongdoing.
The day Lassana was killed, activists pointed out just how ugly pervasive racism had become. The government urged us not to jump to conclusions. The army investigated itself and assured us there was no racism within its ranks. A junior minister in the government went on the spot where Lassana breathed his last and without evidence of any awareness of the irony unveiled a plaque with the white trash slogan “all lives matter”. Far be it from a Maltese government official that a specific reference is made to the lives of the black underclass of this country even when belonging to it meant you could be shot by off-duty soldiers prowling for a laugh.
It is hard then to conclude with anything that can uplift your spirits. Though there is room for improvement, the media cannot be indicted for the pervasive racial hatred. It would be easier if it could be, because then it could be persuaded to change its tone and use words like stones, not to throw them at the downtrodden but to build bridges between people who start by perceiving themselves as different.
The issue here is less mediatic and more deeply cultural in terms of prejudice, political in terms of leadership too weak to outgrow that prejudice, and moral. Because we live in a time when a prime minister is applauded for saying that migrants are needed to collect the rubbish and work in the sun for us. We live in a time when the memories of slavery and apartheid are recalled with fond nostalgia. We live in a time when the Crusades are being fought anew and that we have a God-given right to be on top.
I hardly think that in today’s world newspapers can change that.