It’s bad enough to have to listen to the military rhetoric about sieges and invasions poured like hemlock in our ears by right wing populist politicians from the UK, France, Italy, Hungary, Poland, Greece, and Malta to poison us with hatred for migrants desperately trying to reach Europe. It’s horrible. It normalises prejudice and dehumanises people whose only crime is wanting a better life. It makes official our cold-hearted indifference to the fates of others, particularly if the others are not white.
Hearing that sort of discourse from an EU Commissioner is, for some reason, even worse. It’s that we have come to expect right-wing lurching from politicians of every creed desperate to pander to the prejudices and fears of voters. European Commissioners are politicians too and they are just as subject to popular moods and political currents. But in less than their colleagues on the front lines of local and national politics.
Commissioners are less pressed by the expectations of constituencies. The public tolerates their relative anonymity and consequential aloofness. On behalf of the greater interest of Europe and the promotion of the values of the Union they have more space to choose to say and do what is right.
Consider these two quotes.
First. “Malta is … facing the direct challenge of smugglers and the illegal migration phenomenon.” Is that it? Is that all that’s coming here, smugglers and an illegal phenomenon? What about people, children, women, men, half blinded, starved, dehydrated, and agonised? What about their hunger, their poverty, their suffering? What about their enslavement and their desperate escape from it?
Second. “The work of the … Maltese government is critical also when it comes to defending European borders.” Defending European borders from what? Is Russia opening a southern front? Are the people on those rickety boats, bereft of food, water, and an inflatable dinghy or a working motor engine, armed with tanks, fighter jets, and artillery? Why do borders need defending from the starving and the drowning?
There are more atrocities in Commissioner Várhelyi’s remarks.
He blames the victims of human trafficking giving people who pay smugglers some unasked for, utterly oblivious, advice: “First of all, don’t engage in illegal activity to get to another country. If you want to get to another country, first you apply for a visa, a humanitarian visa and asylum, and then embark on a journey that is safe. Travelling with smugglers is never safe. Don’t trust smugglers.” If they can’t have bread, let them eat cake!
If those people who paid their village’s life savings to try to get across the desert and the ocean had any prospect of a favourable response to a visa application and a safe journey here, they would take it. The reason they don’t “first apply for a visa” is that they have no chance in hell of getting one.
Which is why it is Europe that is keeping smugglers in a thriving business because desperate people will migrate whatever advice Commissioner Várhelyi gives them in interviews on Times of Malta and if there’s no lawful way to migrate, they will resort to whatever means are available to them. They don’t just do it to spite Commissioner Várhelyi or to give Minister Byron Camilleri a little exquisite sadistic delight in abandoning people to their fates. They do it because they must.
If there was a legal and safe way for migrants to reach their destination, smugglers would be out of business. It’s prohibition that gives life to organised crime. It’s this fortress mentality that is creating this mess on the border.
Commissioner Várhelyi speaks of a “crackdown on smugglers”. That’s the sort of discourse the US government used on people illegally brewing, transporting, and selling alcohol in the 1920s and 1930s when alcohol was rather counter-productively banned. When they caught the smugglers, they smashed their trucks and their distillers and poured the alcohol they produced down sewers and waterways and over boardwalks into the ocean. A crackdown on human smugglers will smash boats. Their content will be poured in the ocean. The content of these boats is not whiskey. It’s people.
Here’s this choice quote from the Commissioner’s interview. “You should never mix immigration policy with illegal migration,” Commissioner Várhelyi admonishes us. But he’s the one to serve up the cocktail, telling people they shouldn’t seek to come in illegally but should instead apply for a visa. Even he, confusingly, admits the two matters are inseparable. Even he, apparently unwittingly confirms, that legal and illegal migration are sides of the same coin, the same human experience.
Times of Malta’s Sarah Carabott challenges the Commissioner that whoever is blocked from coming through the route close to us is being handed over to the Libyans. The EU is funding the Libyan coast guard to do our dirty work, like outsourced bouncers on a deadly disco run. But are the Libyans working for Europe sticking to basic norms of human decency?
“We are providing training to the Libyan coastguard so that they understand the European requirements and human rights requirements, and act in accordance with that,” replies unhelpfully Commissioner Várhelyi. It’s as open an admission as could be expected that the Libyan coastguard falls short of “European requirements and human rights requirements”. He says they don’t even understand the concepts.
Now this is only part of the problem but an important one because it falls directly in the responsibility of our governments and our EU Commission. The Libyan coastguard, unable to understand human rights requirements, is an agent commissioned by Europe. Their actions, therefore, are our legal responsibility.
No one is going to ask Commissioner Várhelyi to have a discussion on our moral responsibility for the treatment of the people we send back to Libya by slavers masked as warlords and militiamen there, are they? His concerns stop at “the EU’s borders” that we seem to have to defend like this was the Second Crusade and we’re on the wrong side of the walls of Jerusalem.
I will not make assumptions based on the Commissioner’s nationality being Hungarian. His country’s government leads this isolationist, xenophobic, neo-crusading conflict-mongering. And Olivér Várhelyi is an appointee of the leader of that government. I have no doubt Viktor Orbán would enjoy reading this interview. What hurts more is that this language is being represented as an act in “defence of European values”.
It’s anything but.