Ship after ship, there is no more doubt that the recent diplomatic stand-offs between Malta and Italy reveal what the European Union (EU) policy on irregular immigration for what it really is – a huge failure. In the latest tug of war between the two countries, one can safely say that Italy is behaving like an obnoxious bully, although Malta held out as long as possible. Throughout the deadlock, the controversial vessels remained stranded in international waters with asylum seekers on board, human beings like you and me, who had effectively become hostages at sea.
In the meantime, however, yet another rescue vessel with asylum seekers on board is loitering in international waters because no other country wants to give it shelter. Each country grapples daily with its own challenges raised by irregular immigration, but it cannot be said that responsibilities are distributed evenly. EU countries in the Southern Mediterranean, namely Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta, have borne the full brunt of the extraordinary influx of irregular immigrants fleeing from the horrors of war and desolation.
For many years, the concept of sharing the burden of immigration between all the member states was mainly pushed forward by Malta because the island had been suffering the highest burden in relation to its size and means. The sad truth is that international solidarity between member states over this hot issue is not worth the paper it is written on.
In the wake of widespread disgruntlement over the rising immigrant population, all EU leaders would probably prefer to come down on the most popular side of the fence and implement push-backs, expecting that this would keep their popularity ratings high among their own citizens who feel threatened in their own country. Alas, the situation is not so clear-cut, for every human being has the right to freedom from oppression. While some cities, like Barcelona, would rather welcome migrants than tourists, our Prime Minister is calling on migrants to use legal channels, when even scientists and travellers from outside the EU share horror stories about trying to get a simple visa.
Many of us will remember the heart-wrenching image of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler found dead on a Turkish beach after he was washed up from the sea in which he drowned. The entire world had expressed horror and with hands over their hearts, many leaders promised that no other child would suffer the same cruel fate. That was three years ago. Since then, thousands of asylum seekers have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea, including many children.
Whilst we sit comfortably in the safety of our home or workplace, others are embarking upon perilous journeys in dinghies from North Africa, packed like squashed sardines two feet above sea level, beaten down by the scorching sun during the day and engulfed by the menacing darkness throughout the night, until they are picked up by rescue vessels and taken to the nearest safe harbour.
Many EU leaders refuse to accept that this matter concerns all member states. They are prisoners of their own empty rhetoric and continue to view dead refugee children as a tragedy but living asylum seekers as a threat. They would do better to agree on a common immigration policy and pledge their best efforts to make it work.