The alternative to civilised behaviour
Published: December 27, 2009 at 5:04pm
The Jesuit Refugee Service has published a report on the experiences of illegal immigrants in Libyan detention centres.
It makes for horrible reading, not least because it brings us face to face with the reality beneath the surface that we know of Libya. You can read the report at www.jrsmalta.org.
Malta has strong business ties with Libya and cannot afford to disrupt or prejudice these in any way.
There is too much at stake. But the fact remains that – as with the industrialised, democratic world and its dealings with China – there are deeply disturbing human rights issues which cannot be squared with the greater good of doing business and of keeping bilateral relations on an even keel.
The sad thing is that people living on the outside tend to dismiss human rights transgressions in Libya as being all about the inferior democratic thinking of Libyans in general.
People like you and me, but who are Libyan born and bred, are too afraid to speak up against the dictatorship and the things that are perpetrated in its name.
And so those of us who are on the outside sometimes fail to realise that these matters are just as painful to them as they would be to us.
We only have to remember how afraid we Maltese were to speak up against the human rights crimes, corruption and violence committed by our own government and the people protected by it in the 1970s and 1980s – and we had far less to be afraid of than today’s Libyans do.
The opening up of Libya to international business is a good thing for ordinary Libyans, not just because of the investment that will lead to jobs and opportunities, but because where business goes, democracy must invariably follow. Business functions best in a democratic environment.
The development of democracy in Europe is inextricably linked to the rise of the merchant classes. As for China, what we are seeing there now is but a tiny fraction of the intimidating powerhouse it would become if democracy were to break out eventually.
Perhaps you can argue that the prospect is so frightening for some that there are vested interests in keeping the China a communist dictatorship. China with democracy would leave the United States standing, despite the giant head start that the latter has had.
The report about the suffering of people in Libyan detention centres is saddening. But the thought occurred to me that the cruelty and deep neglect that they are enduring is precisely the sort of treatment so many Maltese would like to see meted out in the camps here in Malta, at least if their on-line comments and the conversations I am forced to endure are anything to go by.
We are speaking here of religious intolerance – in Malta, of Muslims by Christians and in Libya of Christians by Muslims, and of human beings who are treated like detritus because they are different and unwanted.
When boat-people stopped landing in Malta and it became increasingly obvious that Libya had begun to stop them leaving because of diplomatic and other pressures, I voiced my concern to somebody in precisely these words: “My God, I dread to think what’s being done to them there.”
The woman to whom I spoke said: “Yes, but you can’t reason that way, because it’s not our problem. Our concern is with making sure they don’t come here.”
That’s not how I see it. People who are prevented from coming to our country by means of torture and other serious abuse should weigh heavily on our conscience.
I won’t bring up the matter of religion because we are meant to be civilised and humane whether we are religious or not (and I’m not), though it does seem odd that our particular brand of Christianity stops at our borders and involves turning a blind eye to the acute suffering which we have indirectly helped to cause by our repeated insistence that Libya stops people leaving for Malta – when we know that Libya cannot be trusted to do this in the way a democratic country would.
All those who kvetch about the superlative treatment given to migrants in Maltese detention camps (it is anything but that, though those responsible are doing the best they can with limited means) should read this report of what happens in Libyan camps and work out what it reminds them of.
“The hospital here is not for black people but only for Libyans,” guards are reported to have told people in the camps. “If you want, go back and die in your country.” A young asthmatic in danger of dying was told: “If you come here on your own, you die on your own.” He died.
Maltese guards do not behave this way, hitting the people in their charge, torturing them with electric prods and killing them when riots are quelled. But it is clear from the way people talk and comment on the internet that this is how they would like our guards to behave.
They think of the Africans in the camps as little more than animals, and argue that they should be treated that way.
The Jesuit Refugee Service report is important not just because it reveals what some of us have long suspected to be happening in Libya, but because it reminds us that the alternative to respecting the rights of immigrants and to treating them with civility and dignity is to do what Libya is doing. But if we do it too, then we will have nobody to blame but ourselves, because this is not a dictatorship.
We are responsible for our own shame, if cause for shame there is.
This article was published in The Malta Independent on Christmas Eve.