Scapegoating of Africans must stop

The ignorance of the Lega mayor infuriated the usual commentators, who were eager to remind Ceccardi that Malta has assumed its responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

This week’s incident involving a far-right Lega mayor of a small provincial Tuscan town in Italy came to illustrate the inevitable limits of the far-right’s populist and anti-immigrant policy.

Cascina mayor, Susanna Ceccardi, prompted outrage with a video she filmed outside Castille place last Thursday: “Walking around this island’s streets, you won’t see one migrant,” she claims. “I’ve been here one day now and people here tell me you won’t see any migrants, simply because Europe has emptied the barrel of migration onto Italy...”

It is ironic that, while online Maltese comment-boards are often replete with xenophobic commentary on migrants, the ignorance of the Lega mayor infuriated the usual commentators, who were eager to remind Ceccardi that Malta has assumed its responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers.

Ultimately, they are right to point out the flaw in Ceccardi’s reasoning. One day spent walking around Valletta will surely not illustrate the extent to which Malta’s demographics have changed over the last decade. The mayor’s claims that ‘there are no migrants in Malta’ is in itself an absurdity, easily dispelled by any serious study into Malta’s current population.

The irony, however, is that Ceccardi and Malta’s anti-immigration lobby both share the same perception of migration in general: both are motivated by the same impulse... which can simply be described as wanting to contain immigration from Africa to within Africa itself. What the Cascini mayor’s statement (and local reactions to it) made apparent is that the far right is not willing to show solidarity even among its own adherents. Shaping the discourse on both fronts is a desire to scapegoat others: having already scapegoated migrants through terms such as ‘clandestini’ – in both Italian and Maltese – the two countries are now in the process of blaming each other: either for not taking in migrants, or for trying to push the flow of migration in each other’s direction.

In this respect, Ceccardi was not speaking in a vacuum. All the pronouncements from the Italian government to date are premised by an unwillingness to show solidarity amongst EU member states, an attitude that endangers the European consensus and undermines any willingness to forge ahead with a common asylum policy.

Another irony is that, while Italy locks horns with Malta over the fate of migrants rescued at sea, other European countries are similarly closing their own borders, leaving the frontier states to cope with the issue alone. In all such countries, the right’s answer to immigration forces a downward push against border nations like Italy and Malta: the ascendance of the AfD in Germany, Sebastain Kurtz in Austria, and the Lega in Italy, seem only interested in pushing migrants out to the Mediterranean – a short-sighted policy that only punishes frontier member states.

From this perspective it could be argued that the problems we associate with migration are just as much the product of a political climate that is hostile towards migration, as the logistical challenges involved. Malta’s experience with migration has not been without its benefits: a 2016 study by the Central Bank revealed that the proportion of foreign workers in the labour force had risen from 1.3% in 2000 to 10.1% in 2014... and has increased exponentially ever since. Entire sectors of the economy now depend to a degree on imported labour – construction, tourism and hospitality, infrastructure, agriculture, etc. – and the Malta Developers’ Association recently argued that Malta will need more migration, not less, in the years to come.

What is strange is how, even at a time of economic prosperity, the xenophobic right remains on the warpath. Even the two main political parties are unable to clearly enunciate a coherent defence of asylum and migration: Opposition leader Adrian Delia’s pronouncements suggest he is in favour of unspecified limits and that he backs the forcible docking of rescue NGOs; Joseph Muscat recently told unions that ‘an influx of foreign workers is not only inevitable but necessary for Malta to maintain current economic growth levels’; and that ‘foreign workers were indispensable for [national] projects’. Yet it is Muscat’s own government that has stopped NGOs from rescuing lives at sea.

Nor has either party taken a clear stand against the unbridled xenophobia that has gripped national (and international) discourse on immigration. A recent Patrijotti Maltin upload claimed that ‘the wind of change’ is in their favour, as ‘both political parties now agree with their position’. It would be interesting to hear what the Nationalist and Labour Parties have to say, about being ideologically equated with an extreme rightwing political grouping.

Ultimately, however, what is most intolerable is the scapegoating of migrants and Africans. In a country that is overcoming economic and infrastructural challenges, fighting poverty and improving social solidarity, welcoming migrants should be the enduring example of Maltese exceptionalism – it should be an extension of the strong social bonds that make up Maltese society.

This country cannot keep treating foreign labour as simply a source of cheap labour or rental income, without expecting that our ‘guest-workers’ can become active citizens in the oft-touted cosmopolitan Malta.  Without humanitarianism, Labour’s ‘cosmopolitan’ island will, in the end, turn into an empty shell with a thin veneer of prosperity, but nothing more.