The Invasion of Atlantis


On 17 July, the Guardian newspaper published a 12 page graphic comic entitled “The Unwanted,” written by Joe Sacco, a Maltese citizen who presently lives in Oregon. “The Unwanted,” which can be read here, purports to describe the cultural, political and logistical problems being caused in Malta by large-scale illegal immigration from Africa.

Sacco’s parents were socialists, and emigrated to Australia in the 1960s to escape the influence of the Catholic church -- a hugely powerful institution in Malta, where abortion and divorce are still illegal. The parental antinomianism appears to have rubbed off on their son, because his views tend towards the conventionally leftwing, with other graphic offerings to his name about the travails of Bosnia and Gaza.

“The Unwanted” does make some effort to understand the concerns of the native Maltese. Nevertheless, the overall impression is one of finger-wagging at the smallest member state of the European Union, which it joined in 2004 at the instigation of the humorously-entitled Nationalist Party, led by Lawrence Gonzi, who has been Prime Minister since 2004 (he was narrowly re-elected in March 2008). Sacco’s comic is the least annoying in a long line of denunciatory Guardian features, all of which bear typically didactic titles like “Voyage to Compassion,” “Malta’s Mash of Civilizations,” and “Hysteria is no answer to the plight of refugees.”

The easily outraged denounce Malta regularly, for its Catholic mores, its Euroscepticism, its habit of slaughtering song birds (this offends me too), and worst of all its attitude towards the thousands of African migrants aiming for mainland Europe who end up landing on Malta, or being rescued by trawlers and taken to the archipelago. Here they stay for up to 18 months in legal limbo, killing time in overcrowded detention centres while lawyers, civil servants and politicians from Valletta to Brussels wrangle about their “right” to be there and who should take responsibility for them.

At around 122 square miles, Malta is one-fifth the size of Greater London and has a population of 409,000 (UN figures, although the real figure is probably nearer 413,000). The archipelago is rocky and barren, and the economy is heavily dependent on tourism and machinery exports.

The islands have been occupied by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, the French and the British, and there are ruined temples which are over 8,000 years old. Although the Arabs were only present on the islands for around 200 years, the Maltese language is derived mostly from Arabic (although it is written in Latin script, the only Semitic language for which this is true), and their erstwhile occupation is also evident in the local food, music and the physiognomies of some of the local people.

The architectural ambience, however, is baroque, while it is one of the most strongly Christian countries in the world. It was the home between 1530 and 1798 of the crusading Knights Hospitaller of St. John of Jerusalem, whose emblem is the eight-pointed Maltese Cross (the emblem actually derives from the Italian town of Salerno, because the founders of the Hospital of St John came from there). The Order, which had been expelled by the Muslims first from Jerusalem and then Rhodes, was given the island by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain, who demanded in return a nominal fee of a single falcon (this pleasing vignette is referred to in the classic Humphrey Bogart film, The Maltese Falcon). The Knights have been described as the “first embryonic council of Europe.” Some idea of the reality of this may be gauged by examining the 28 Grand Masters of the Order of St John between 1530 and 1798 (when the Order was suppressed by Napoleon). Twelve were French, eight Aragonese, four Italian, three Portuguese and one German. (The Order is now based in London, with its headquarters in a medieval gatehouse in fashionable Clerkenwell.) The militant order which was once tasked with defending holy sites is now reduced to providing first aid at football matches -- a useful but inglorious task, perhaps emblematic of mainstream Christianity.

In 1565, under the command of Jean de la Vallette (in whose honor the elegant city of Valletta is named), approximately 9,000 defenders legendarily resisted an Ottoman invasion force of around 48,000 (firing an estimated 135,000 cannonballs) for more than four months. This was a military turning point, and built up momentum for the momentous victory at Lepanto just six years afterwards.

Malta endured an equally terrible siege when Axis forces trying to cut Britain’s Suez lifeline besieged the island effectively from June 1940 until April 1942. For the islanders’ heroism during that period, the country was presented with the George Cross by King George VI, and this is still emblazoned on the state flag, even though Malta became independent in 1964.

So notwithstanding its Arabic trace elements, Malta is deeply rooted in the European mainstream -- and all the more conscious of its cultural identity because of its historical vulnerability and vicissitudes. It is this awareness, no doubt, which led a majority of electors to take the difficult decision to join the EU. Like the inhabitants of many other small European countries, they probably see membership as guaranteeing future security.

With such resonant traditions to draw upon, it is ironic that there is no serious political resistance to the immigration wave, although this is probably because it is a relatively recent phenomenon.

In 2003, 502 African migrants arrived on the islands. In 2005, it was 1,800 -- in 2006 1,780 -- in 2007, 1,800 -- and around 1,700 in both 2008 and 2009. So far this year, there has been a 3.3 percent decrease in the numbers, probably reflecting would-be migrants’ consciousness that even Europe is not immune to recession. Others have died trying to make the crossing; Malta was much criticized when 53 migrants drowned in Maltese waters in May 2007, and again when 80 or so drowned in August 2008.

The total numbers of immigrants are small, amounting to only around 3 percent of the total population, but in such a tiny and relatively poor country the impact is enormous. As a 2008 report from the Maltese think-tank Today Public Policy Institute (TPPI) expresses it,

Relative to population size, this equates to around 1.72 million immigrants arriving in France or the UK, 2.35 million in Germany, 1.6 million in Italy and about 1.15 million in Spain…on a per capita basis Malta has thus experienced one of the largest -- if not the largest -- influx of undocumented immigrants among EU countries over recent years.

“The Unwanted” spends much energy denouncing Norman Lowell, who has a party called, ambitiously or fancifully, depending on your perspective, Imperium Europa. He is presently serving a two year suspended sentence for inciting racial hatred and insulting the president. Lowell is denounced as a “far rightist,” and, to be fair, Lowell features lightning-flash logos and admiring references to Mein Kampf scattered in amongst such un-Hitlerian policy commitments as freedom of expression and gay rights. Lowell has stood several times in national and European elections, but third parties in Malta always score derisory votes.

A more down-to-earth party, National Action (Azzjoni Nazzjonali) was founded in 2007 by a businessman and former Nationalist Party MP named Josie Muscat, but after failing to win any seats in 2008 despite a strong anti-immigration platform, in April 2010 the party voted to transform itself into

an organisation that promotes and disseminates conservative values.

Since then, there has been silence, and now there does not appear to be even a website for AN, so perhaps nothing more will come of this.

The TPPI report complains:

The emergence of overtly xenophobic movements and parties has been a complete novelty in Malta’s political landscape. Moreover, and somewhat more worrying, there has been a rise in attacks against organizations and individuals working to protect the rights of immigrants, or against people denouncing racism… A recent study on xenophobic attitudes among the Maltese population has also revealed some disturbing results.

According to a survey conducted in 2005, 95% of respondents had no objections to having a European neighbour, while an almost equally high number were unwilling to live next to Arabs (93%), Africans (90%) or Jews (89%). Moreover, more than 75% of respondents said they would not give shelter to refugees.

The TPPI notes with some sympathy the difficulties faced by Maltese fishermen, who often come across migrants miles from land, drifting in unseaworthy boats. The fishermen

“usually avoid coming too close to a boat carrying 20 to 30 migrants, as they fear being overpowered. Moreover, if they alert the authorities, these can take several hours to arrive on the spot, meaning that the fishermen’s day of work is lost without compensation … as Maltese fishermen themselves readily admit, in most cases when they come across irregular migrants at sea, they simply “put the engine on full thrust.”

The report complains plaintively of the lack of Libyan cooperation, as if Muammar Gaddafi were a rational man. Yet Libya does have a strategic interest in halting the flow, because it is a major transit point, and it too has a large (almost one million) and much-resented illegal immigrant population from black Africa. (On a recent visit to Italy, the colourful Colonel disconcerted journalists by declaring that most “asylum-seekers” from Africa were fraudulent.)

More to the point, the TPPI bemoans the EU’s border agency Frontex’s unwillingness or inability to augment the miniscule Maltese defence forces. At present, there are three Maltese patrol boats, two German helicopters and a launch to patrol a sea-area the size of Great Britain. Even Italy will not send assistance, although many of the Africans who land on Malta end up in Italy, and although the nearby Italian island of Lampedusa (best known as the hereditary fiefdom of Giovanni Tomasi de Lampedusa, author of The Leopard) is likewise a magnet for illegal immigration. However, the Italian Navy already has a major job patrolling Italy’s Adriatic coast, which is also targeted by people-traffickers. With the present budgetary constraints, and the all-party dogma that mass immigration is intrinsically good and its opponents intrinsically evil, in the short term the chances of Frontex being beefed up look slim.

So the report concludes by recommending the cheaper strategy that is always resorted to by today’s politicians, to make the natives feel guilty for wishing to preserve the country they love:

Efforts should be made… to implement a sustained information exercise in the media…Such a campaign needs to air regularly.

What this amounts to is that the Maltese are to be lectured for wishing to remain Maltese -- and they will be expected to pay for their sensitivity lessons. Not only this, but they will also be hectored, because along with largesse from Brussels come rafts of bland-sounding but draconian laws about race relations, religious discrimination, equality, and human rights designed to undermine all assumptions and usher in an unwanted, untested and un-European “Europe.” The effects of these laws -- like the laws on abortion and divorce -- are yet to be visited upon the unwitting islanders, who may find this insidious enemy harder to resist than Ottoman or German soldiers.

The battle-scarred walls of Valletta still stand strong and beautiful in the sun, but all the postern gates have been thrown open.