The current conflict in Syria has undoubtedly sparked some of the most tense and heated debates in recent political history. It has even managed to engulf the current G20 summit in Russia, which is intended to provide a platform for the globe’s leading economies to discuss the current financial woes. But while the entire world helplessly protested against the horrific chemical attacks of the 21st of August that claimed hundreds of Syrians, have people finally made a link between war and immigration?
Ever since the Arab Spring shook up Northern African countries in 2011, there has been a marked increase in asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean en route to Europe. However, this is not ‘fresh; news for the Maltese, who have been receiving irregular immigrants by boat ever since the country’s accession to the EU in 2004. The main nationalities arriving to the Island’s shores are Somali, Ethiopian or Eritrean, with an increase in Libyan, Egyptian and Syrian immigrants since 2011.
The figures for Malta are relatively small when placed in a global perspective, with a peak influx of around 3,000 individuals through 2009. However, this figure takes a life of its own when it is calculated as a proportion of the country’s population – equivalent to around 1,000,000 immigrants arriving in the UK, Germany or Spain in a given year.
Illegal immigration in Malta has always been a contentious issue, with a disturbing majority of locals heavily opposed to the arrival of these ‘invaders’. However, where does this perspective fall when one considers the atrocities the world is witnessing in Syria?
The EU is already expecting a large influx of Syrian asylum seekers as a result of the current conflict which has already claimed around 100,000 people according to the UN. It is estimated that there are around 2 million refugees that have evacuated the country, with more making their way to safer territories.
So while the Maltese will (hopefully) show their solidarity with the Syrians in light of this crisis, will they be willing to help these people when they arrive clandestinely on our shores? The reality is that these people are fleeing for their lives, trying to escape a seemingly wicked government that will go as far as attacking its own people.
The Syrian case echoes the same situation faced by civilians in Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. No rational human being will leave his or her country unless they are trying to better their chances of survival – even Europeans from Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal and Cyprus are ‘fleeing’ economic hardships in their homelands to secure a future for themselves.
It becomes very obvious that the probable cause for the animosity felt by Maltese towards illegal immigrants is rooted in feelings of racism. While many will not admit it, people in Malta dislike immigrants because they are mainly black. The notion of having a society integrated with different religions, cultures and races is beyond the grasp of most Maltese people, despite their claims of being cultured and open-minded.
As such, I ponder on the following thought:
When the time comes (and it will) that Syrians start arriving in waves to Malta to escape death by chemical weapons, how will the Maltese public react?
Will they practice their proud religious virtues and help these people make a future for themselves away from conflict and near certain death? Or will they continue to classify them as ‘invaders’ and ‘a disease’ on our nation?
Furthermore, should the Maltese people be willing to accept Syrians without a complaint, what makes them so different from the Eritreans, Somalis and Ethiopians that are also seeking safety from civil conflict?