Reopening the Fortress

This paper was presented at a conference on ‘Schengen and Migration in the Mediterranean’ organized by the Ceratonia Foundation, Alternattiva Demokratika (Maltese Green Party) and the European Greens in Malta, 19-21 November, 1999. The speakers included Alima Boumedienne-Thiery (Green MEP), Arnold Cassola (Secretary General, European Federation of Green Parties), other Maltese and foreign politicians, refugees, the GWU (the largest Maltese union) and Maltese NGOs. Adrian Grima was representing the Third World Group.


We Should Know Better

According to the Caritas report on Poverty in Malta for 1998, a good number of Maltese respondents ‘considered the presence of immigrants and refugees in the neighbourhoods as a threat to their security. It somehow down-classed their neighbourhoods and brought abnormality into their otherwise normal lives.’

And yet, as seasoned migrants ourselves, we really should know better. Malta has a two-hundred-year-old direct experience of emigration. It has never been easy for those of us who emigrated, mostly for purely economic reasons, to other countries. In 1912, the Daily Malta Chronicle (quoted by Mario Azzopardi) published a piece about the negative reactions of the Australians against the poverty and ignorance of the Maltese emigrants in Sydney. (Note the racist reference to ‘coloured people’.) ‘The Australians are classing the Maltese with coloured people. This can be read in the newspapers and no Australian or Englishman will work with them. We are beginning to feel ashamed of ourselves on this account. In Sydney the Maltese are utterly cold-shouldered and soon it will be the same in Tasmania.’ Moreover, the State Authorities in Australia were apparently targeting the Maltese for cheap labour.

Governments often rely on emigration as an economic safety valve. ‘Ironically, but understandably’, as Henry Frendo puts it, in Malta’s year of Independence, 1964, 8,731 Maltese citizens left the islands in the hope of earning a living elsewhere, one of the highest rates of emigration ever recorded.’ In the mid-1960s, a report by a UN economic advisor, Wolfgang Stolper, and his team concluded that the ‘multiplier effect’ of the British Services Rundown ‘could only be counter-balanced by a major injection of capital investment in manufacturing industry, tourism, and to a lesser extent in agriculture.’ Stolper also estimated that ‘10,000 Maltese would have to emigrate every year’ as a safety-valve’ (372) ‘until the economy could be productively and creatively restructured’. In the fifteen years between 1950 and 1964, 87,348 Maltese people emigrated to the UK, Canada, Australia, the USA or some other country.

The Poverty in Malta report for 1996 linked immigration to the physical and relational types of poverty. ‘For Malta, it was a new form of poverty introduced by the recent influx of refugees from Iraq and ex-Yugoslavia and immigrants from Africa. For immigrants, it took the shape of a diffuse sense of [precariousness], as they waited for visas to other countries or for work permits for Malta.’ The report talks about ‘the indifference, prejudice and silent hostility that the local population showed in their regard’. This negative attitude caused stress, frustration, ill health, weak communication and language skills, and solitude. The immigrants faced ‘old forms of poverty like inadequate housing, work problems and economic stress.’ The report goes on to say that many non-Europeans requested refugee status ‘in order to acquire financial assistance. Many immigrants had large families. They often were employed illegally,’ and, it goes without saying, were savagely underpaid.

In the report for 1998, of the 14 respondents who said that there were immigrants or refugees in the neighbourhood, 5 said that they had hosted immigrants and refugees in their homes and their presence had generated family stress. These five respondents also noted that ‘the immigrants and refugees often encountered problems at work and experienced material poverty’. All the respondents who mentioned them said that they saw them as ‘people in a situation of poverty, for legal and economic reasons’.

Foreign Debt and Migration

In a report written for the Barcelona Conference, Susan George talks about the social consequences for all the countries of the Mediterranean Basin of the foreign debt and the unbalanced relationships between the Northern and Southern shores. George claims that there are three reasons why there should be a new approach towards the issue of foreign debt:

  1. the first argument is a financial one: there is no way the debt can ever be repaid;
  2. the second is a social argument: the debt is reducing the standard of living of the people of the South, especially those who are most vulnerable – this creates hardship and instability;
  3. three, the foreign debt of the South has a boomerang effect on the countries of the Northern shore.

A mathematical and sociological study about the migratory drive northwards of the people of the Maghreb, has shown that population has grown fast in the Maghreb and in Turkey. Only 4% of the people in these countries are over 65. This growth in population has been accompanied by unemployment, especially in urban areas, where the rate is high and still rising. Modernisation in agriculture has reduced the number of workers in rural areas and has encouraged the unemployed in the countryside to join their counterparts in the cities. The internal migration from the country to the city has also been induced by environment degradation. There is therefore a surplus of labour and an increased dependence on the ‘informal’ sector to provide non-agricultural jobs. The social system is struggling to provide adequate health, education and housing, and those young people who have the means to do so emigrate. Foreign investment has not matched expectations.

In order to address the problem of the growing labour supply, the countries of the Maghreb have to create about 10 million new jobs by the year 2010. In such a situation, these developing countries might not be as serious as they claim to be about their commitment to curb the flow of illegal emigration to the North. In view of the above, Susan George claims that the most intelligent policy on the part of Europe would be that of converting the debt into jobs inside these developing countries.

On the other hand, immigration renews the populations of Europe and allows them not to get too old. In the early nineties there were about 15.5 million legal immigrants in Europe and about 2.6 illegal immigrants. Most of these women and men are aged between 15 and 49 years and relatively few are pensioners. In the near future, foreigners will be financing many of the pensions of native European senior citizens.

The situation in Malta is, of course, quite different. Unlike Western Europe, the population in Malta is still steadily on the increase, both because of the low mortality rate and because of the phenomenon of returned migrants. Given the size of the country and its high population density, many contend that Malta cannot afford to take in any substantial number of migrants, but this contrasts with the policy of successive governments of attracting well-to-do foreign residents to the Islands, and also the practice of ruthless employers who employ illegal immigrants without respecting their rights as workers and human beings.

The West and ‘its non-Western Peripheries’

Edward Said believes that there is such a thing as a distinctively European tradition, ‘in the sense of an identifiable set of experiences, of states, of nations, of legacies, which have the stamp of Europe upon them.’ But this must not be divorced from the world beyond Europe. There is what he calls a ‘complementarity’ between Europe and its others, and that’s ‘the interesting challenge for Europe, not to purge itself of all its outer affiliations and connections in order to try to turn into some ‘pure’ thing.’ In an interview with Richard Kearney published in States of Mind: Dialogues with Contemporary Thinkers, Said was asked whether Europeans should acknowledge the immigrants as a part of them. His answer was based on the ‘understanding’ that there is ‘no political or national grouping that is homogeneous’. Everything is mixed, ‘we deal in a world of interdependent, mongrelised societies’. Societies are really ‘hybrids’, ‘impure’.

To Said, a seasoned Palestinian refugee himself, this hybridity is a virtue, not a vice. The fundamental question is education. Most systems of education today are still nationalist, because they promote ‘the authority of the national identity in an idealised way and suggest that it is incapable of any criticism, that it is virtue incarnate’. He believes that there is nothing that lays the seed of conflict in the future more than what we educate our children and students in the universities to believe about themselves.’ Europe is hybrid, it contains many different elements, and one has to recognize them. Children are ‘perfectly capable of understanding that. It’s the adults who don’t want to understand for base reasons.’

The fundamental concept of hybridity is diametrically opposed to the EU’s frantic moves to close itself within its newly-built walls. This defensive frame of mind is inspired more by its desire to protect its already considerable resources. But there is also a racial, or perhaps racist, rationale that complements this economically inspired, misguided closure. In his bestseller on Culture and Imperialism, Said says that everyone agrees that there is a ‘fundamental ontological distinction’ between the West and the rest of the world. ‘So strongly felt and perceived are the geographical and the cultural boundaries between the West and its non-Western peripheries that we may consider these boundaries absolute.’

These boundaries reinforce the supremacy of the West in our minds; Said argues that the active domination of the non-Western world by the West is ‘appropriately global in its scope’, and that there is a ‘convergence’ between the great geographical scope of the empires, especially the British one, and ‘universalizing cultural discourses’. All this in turn produces what has been called ‘a duty’ to natives, the requirement in Africa and elsewhere to establish colonies for the ‘benefit’ of the natives or for the ‘prestige’ of the mother country. This is the rhetoric of la mission civilisatrice: all discourse about migrants has to be wary of this, at best misguided, mission.

The Silent Barriers of Tampere

The strongly felt and perceived geographical and cultural boundaries that have been created have been expressed in very concrete terms in the Schengen Convention and the subsequent agreements that have followed suit. On 15 October, 1999, the fifteen EU members met in Tampere, Finland, to discuss immigration, the right of asylum and security. In an article about this meeting called, ‘The silent barriers of Tampere, more power to the police and to the card-compilers’, dated 2 November, 1999, the Italian newspaper Il Manifestoclaimed that the member countries tried in vain to hide the ‘wicked side’ (faccia cattiva) of Europe, while quietly reinforcing the ‘systems of control’ in the fortress Europe.

The normally discordant members were unanimous in supporting the strengthening of Europol, the joint information system of the European police that compiles information about the ‘unwanted’: traffickers and terrorists, but also clandestine immigrants. Europol determines whether data regarding the racial origin, religious beliefs, political views, sexual life and health of a person should be included in the files. This information system can target persons who have committed an infringement (infrazione) or even those who, there is reason to believe, may commit such infringements. Two Green members of Parliament, Alima Boumédiene-Thiery (who spoke at the Malta conference) and Daniel Cohn-Bendit wrote on Le Monde that ‘our power is insufficient to counter a text as dangerous as that of Europol. The fifteen members also unanimously agreed to strengthen Eurodac (the system for the digital control of immigrants) and the Schengen Information System (a data bank for ‘persons not allowed on the territory’). According to Il Manifesto, the so-called ‘open’ Europe has lifted the drawbridge: whoever wants to enter risks dying.

But the spirit of Schengen was alive and kicking well before the Tampere meeting in October. The organization No Borders stated that on March 27, 1999, France denied entry to 3000 people who wanted to travel to Paris to take part in a demonstration, together with other European citizens, in favour of a Europe that supports universal rights, the right to existence, humanity. The Italians and the non-EU immigrants, sans-papiers and activists who were denied entry to France claimed that they had now experienced for themselves what it means to be ‘clandestine’ and ‘unwanted’ in a fortress Europe open to the circulation of goods but closed to the circulation of human beings. They stated that they did not want to accept a fortress Europe that puts up an iron curtain to deny entry to whoever was not fortunate enough to be born in the opulent economic Union, and a fortress Europe keen on opening new concentration camps to imprison those who have dared commit the ‘crime’ of entering the Schengen zone. They also stated that they did not want to accept a Europe in which thousands of human beings are declared clandestine and illegal, and forced to live in constant fear of imprisonment, expulsion and exploitation by ruthless employers.

On 18 November, 1999, two days before the Malta conference, Il Manifesto published a piece, entitled, ‘Legal Code and Bars’ about a demonstration in Milan against the detention of migrants. The appeal made by the organizers, ‘No to concentration camps in Italy’ (No ai Lager in Italia), describes the detention centres as ‘hidden places, on the outskirts of the city, which are completely or almost completely invisible. The persons who are held in these places have not committed any crime. They are places where people’s rights are being suspended.’ The activists want these detention centres, these ‘concentration camps’, to be closed down.

The Europe We Want

We shouldn’t really be talking about a Schengen Europe of fortresses and detention centres, of restrictions and policing. We should be talking about a Europe built on solidarity, coexistence and multiculturalism, a Europe open to external influences and profoundly aware of its rich hybridity. We should be talking about a Europe that is fully aware of the dramatic conditions that are pushing millions of women and men towards the opulent North; a Europe that promotes economic policies and development models that are able to address the needs of the South; a Europe that proposes an equal distribution of resources that makes it possible for communities to be autonomous and have equal opportunities. According to the Italian organization Mani Tese, this means supporting the rights of immigrants, exiles, refugees and helping them to reunite their families and loved ones. The economic policies of the European governments, pressured by the monetary parameters of Maastricht, are having devastating effects on the living conditions of men, but perhaps more so of women in Europe. Structural unemployment, the dismantlement of the welfare state, the precariousness of work and marginalization have hit native women, and more so, immigrant women, who are being grossly discriminated against even in their fundamental rights.

In its far-reaching policy recommendations on Refugees: Recognition and Protection, the local office of the Jesuit Refugee Service has stated that: ‘In order to guarantee the effective protection of this class of migrants [refugees] it is imperative that there be a qualitative leap from a system based on governmental discretion and humanitarianism to a system based on legally recognised and enforceable rights and duties.’ This is the kind of qualitative leap many committed Europeans are asking the EU to take in the wake of the restrictive measures of the Schengen Convention and the agreements that have followed in its wake. The kind of Europe we are looking forward to is a Europe that provides legally recognised and enforceable rights to Europeans and non-Europeans alike, with particular attention to those who are most in need of protection and support.

We want a Europe based on openness, not on restrictions, on solidarity and multiculturalism, not on protectionism and xenophobia.

Adrian Grima

Published in The Sunday Times (Malta) in January, 2000



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