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To Hug Is Human

Resisting Government’s organised dehumanisation

Last week, the image of Luna Reyes hugging an unnamed Senegalese migrant in Ceuta went viral. The man was dehydrated, barefoot, and weak. Luna sat him down on a rough rock, offered him water, and, in her own words, did “the most normal thing in the world”; she embraced the man, as he wept.

But it would be untrue to paint this as an idyllic scene. The footage shows other migrants, half-conscious and strewn across the pebbled beach. One is being restrained by uniformed officials in bulletproof vests and helmets. For every comment lauding Luna for “showing the world what humanity looks like”, there were multiple to the opposite effect, spewing racist, misogynistic obscenities.

In Malta, it is not too different. One year ago, migrants stranded at sea on blessed Easter Sunday were subject to similar treatment; some pleaded for them to be spared of certain death, more insisted that they be kept away from Maltese shores. Whether it was because of the pandemic or Malta being “full up”, there was no humanity or solidarity to be spared for the most part. Abuse and threats were rife on social media, aimed at these migrants in danger and those, who, like Luna, showed their solidarity with their suffering.

It would be easy to frame these starkly contrasting responses as sole matters of personal values, individual responses, and racism. And it would be true; an understanding of these elements and their interplay is central to making something of this shocking conflict of attitudes. However, framing the issue solely on these terms overlooks the role our politicians and policymakers play in steering people’s reactions.

On the 13th of May, 2020, days after Easter Monday, Minister Byron Camilleri was on an evening talk show on national television (TVM). In an attempt to heap praise on the Government he forms part of, he proclaimed:

“In recent weeks, thanks to the decision we took, Malta saved more than, or at least 460 immigrants” (fl-aħħar ġimgħat, bis-saħħa ta’deċiżjonijiet illi ħadna, Malta ffrankat ‘il fuq minn, jew mill-inqas, 460 immigrant)

Translating “iffrankat” to “saved” may make it seem like Hon. Camilleri was proud to have saved 460 lives. The contrary is the case. “Iffrankat” is better understood as “avoided”, or “was spared of”; the message he wanted to send was that his Government’s actions prevented 460 people reaching our shores to infiltrate and contaminate our communities.

Camilleri’s message is one of dehumanisation. Migrants are not people of the same flesh and blood; they are burdens to be avoided and plagues to keep away.

Lamenting Minister Camilleri’s amorality would be missing a piece of a broader picture. Camilleri’s statements are not necessarily his personal moral conviction but are most definitely an accurate reflection of the Government’s position. Moreover, not only is it a reflection of the Cabinet’s moral position but more significantly, their policy approach.

The dehumanisation of migrants is an integral part of the Maltese Government’s policy on migration. By doing so, its illegal, amoral, inhumane yet convenient treatment of migrants is allowed to slide by the electorate.

We see this clearly in Hon. Camilleri’s words. It is evident in the attempt not to count COVID-19 cases in detention centres with those of Malta, which would explicitly render migrants ‘othered’. It is simply staring one in the face when learning about the arbitrary detention and filthy conditions migrants are forced to live in, sleeping in steel boxes while Hon. Minister Borg pumps millions into roads.

The MUMN’s directives to deny migrants admission to Mount Carmel follows the same trajectory, as does the use of absurd use gloves by court officials when handling black migrants. The exorbitant deployment of army officials during the enforced quarantine in Ħal Far and the scaremongering media coverage of protests erupting after months of dereliction, arbitrary detention, and being forced to live in dirt continue in the same vein.

The Opposition should be ashamed for failing to challenge this paradigm of dehumanisation. Worse even, at times it has contributed to it.

Luna’s hug is not only an affirmation of humanity in a society where it seems to be so selectively applied. It is equally a political stance, a statement of resistance towards politics that actively dehumanises migrants to make letting them drown or shipping them back to Libya less problematic.

In times of organised dehumanisation, may we all, like Luna, continue to affirm our humanity through the most normal of acts, simply because we all are human.

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