Claudine Cassar | Sunday, 06 September 2009
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Berlusconi, the bully of the Med

Several Maltese people I speak to profess to admire the stand Berlusconi and his motley crew are taking with regards to irregular immigrants. They argue that Malta should follow the example of the Italians, who are intercepting boatloads of immigrants and towing them back to Libya.
The reality, however, is that Italy’s actions are both inhumane and illegal.
Contrary to what many people think, not all these irregular immigrants are illegal. It is only after their cases have been processed that we can ascertain whether their application for refugee status is legitimate or not. If the immigrants qualify for refugee status, then they are not illegals. This may sound like a technicality, but in reality it is a very important point.
Refugees are entitled to help and support – they definitely should not be shipped back to Libya like cattle. The Italians should be ashamed of themselves. Last Sunday, their coastguards intercepted a dinghy that was carrying 77 migrants, including 15 women and three children. They did not check their stories, they did not care what they were sending them back to – they just loaded them onto a patrol boat and took them back to Libya.
The sheer audacity and cheek of these people is unbelievable. They break international law, they deny immigrants their fundamental human right to asylum – and then they throw stones at the Maltese and try to make us out to be the ones who are behaving in an obscene manner.
First we had the Sicilian prosecutor who saw fit to start an investigation into the actions of our Armed Forces when they gave water, food and fuel to five migrants in a dinghy. I was very impressed by the humanitarian zeal of the guy – until I realised that just a week later he turned a blind eye when the Italian coastguard summarily shipped back the 77 migrants who were just off the coast of Sicily.
The investigation was not enough. The Italians decided to add a couple of flourishes to the story. With typical Italian creativity, they added some oomph to the saga by cooking up a phantom fishing vessel manned by members of the Maltese Armed Forces in fancy dress. Yes, according to Italian magazine L’Espresso, our soldiers are now dressing up as fishermen and are roaming about in an unmarked fishing boat, greeting immigrants as they sail along and directing them to the nearest Italian port.
These Italian antics would be amusing, if it were not for the fact that the stories are being bruited about in the international media and are damaging Malta’s reputation.
A case in point is a report that appeared in this week’s edition of The Economist. It discusses the actions of the Italian government, acknowledging that “the new approach prevents migrants from applying for asylum even if they are entitled to humanitarian protection”. However, extraordinarily, the reporter concludes that there is no evidence that Italy is reneging on its obligations. No, apparently it is Malta that is the problem! I quote – “Graver doubts hover over Malta”.
What next I ask? Bogus documentaries on Italia 1? Features on Striscia on Canale 5? You never know, they might have the clever idea of claiming that it was really the Armed Forces of Malta, disguised as Italian coastguard personnel and manning a fake Italian boat, who took the 77 unlucky sods back to Libya. Nothing will surprise me.
It is clear that our neighbours will not stop at anything in order to pass the buck. In a new twist to the story, Berlusconi is now threatening to “block the functioning of the European Council” if they so much as dare criticize the actions of his government. Indeed, according to the Italian Premier, any commissioner who voices even the slightest word of criticism about his inhumane policies “should be fired in a definitive manner.”
Berlusconi is a man who is used to having his own way. He has abused his position as leader of the Italian state in order to pass laws that erased his legal problems, which range from allegations of money-laundering and association with the Mafia, to tax evasion, complicity in murder and bribery of politicians, judges and the Guardia di Finanza.
It appears that he now thinks he can erase the accusations that his country has breached international law by throwing a tantrum, stamping his feet and pointing at Malta, for all the world like a playground bully. “They did it mummy! It wasn’t me – it was that nasty Malta!”
What can I say? Way to go Silvio!
My advice to our government would be the same advice I would give my children should they get embroiled with some bigger kid who is trying to intimidate them. Stand up to the baddie and make a lot of noise about it. Shout for help and do not let him get away with it. We need to play the same game the Italians are playing, and work for positive exposure in the international media. This ridiculous situation, where we are the ones who are fulfilling our international obligations, and yet somehow we are ending up portrayed as the baddies must stop once and for all.
It is also important that the powers-that-be do not cave in to pressure to emulate the Italians. Contrary to what public perception may be, these are human beings and they have rights. We have to honour our obligations to the full, and then fight for more support from the EU. That is the only honourable solution to this tragic story.


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