Malta has often complained of a lack of European solidarity vis-à-vis its own migration issues. But human rights activist Neil Falzon argues that European solidarity has been forthcoming… only not of the sort we had in mind
Tuesday 22 October 2013 - 09:00 by Raphael Vassallo
These are busy times for Neil Falzon. As an activist with aditus, a human rights NGO, he has been catapulted to the front line of an increasingly acrimonious battle between local politicians, the European Commission (and other relevant international institutions) and a wider Maltese public that is now clearly exasperated by seemingly endless waves of uncontrolled immigration.
The phenomenon itself has also taken a decidedly dramatic turn. Loss of life associated with immigration has now reached alarming and unacceptable levels, with as many as 500 asylum seekers dying within a radius of 100 miles from our shores in the past two weeks alone. Yet the political stalemate at European level appears to have changed little, if at all, as a result.
Meanwhile, in his other life as a consultant on equality issues, Falzon has just co-authored the draft civil unions' bill, which offers at least a semblance of marriage equality to same-sex couples.
As expected, the proposed law sparked a mild flurry of controversy: mostly coming from such directions as the Catholic Church, which issued a cautiously worded reaction this week... but surprisingly, also by voices emanating from within the LGBT community itself, including complaints that the draft bill stops short of defining same sex civil unions as 'marriage'.
I decide to start with the civil unions issue, and my first question is so obvious that Falzon pre-empts me by asking it himself. If this law gives same-sex couples all the rights and obligations associated with marriage... why not just call it 'gay marriage', and put an end to it?
The answer, he explains, has much to do with the "cultural/religious implications" of the word "marriage".
"People keep telling me, what's in a name? I think the answer is 'a lot'," he begins. "Names are significant: a difference in a word can change entire attitudes towards issues..."
It was against the backdrop of this reality that he and the other members of the consultative committee chose to approach the issue.
"When I worked with the consultation committee to draw up this bill, what we wanted all along was full marriage equality. We wanted all couples to have access to the same rights and obligations as married couples. But we also had to understand we were working within a cultural context, and that there are sensitivities within the public sector that cannot be ignored... even if that was part of the whole point, to challenge the cultural implications of the word 'marriage'..."
But the reality was also that same the constraints within which the consultative committee had to operate were also defined by promises made during the election campaign. Joseph Muscat (then still opposition leader) had ruled out gay marriage in as many words... so the challenge, Falzon explains, was to achieve full marriage equality in the absence of actual marriage.
"I am very happy with the resulting bill... it is as close to what we wanted as the government would accept."
Not everyone shares his enthusiasm, even if the reactions so far seem to have been very tame. For instance, the Bishops' joint statement this week was a far cry from the belligerent tone of pastoral letters of yesteryear. Does this mean the major battle for gay rights has been won? Or does Falzon expect more resistance as the debate wears on?
"There will be objections, I have no doubt... especially with regard to the adoption of children by same sex couples."
This is the most contentious issue associated with this law... even though the law itself doesn't actually change much on this score. Falzon reminds me that gay couples have been adopting in this country for years.... only not as gay couples, but a 'single parents'.
So what difference will this law make in practical terms?
In reply, Falzon points towards a truism along the lines that laws must not only reflect the ideals to which a country aspires... but also the practical social realities on the ground.
"I know it's a cliché, but the divorce referendum has up to a point changed the way Malta looks at these things. It forced people to confront certain realities that we all knew existed, but which weren't always visible on the surface. In a sense the arguments brought forward in the divorce debate reminded people of the realities of everyday life, even if these didn't affect them directly... and it illustrated that the reality of life is not the same as it has traditionally been perceived..."
The civil unions' bill is itself a reflection of these so-called 'new' realities. "It is basically an acknowledgment that Maltese society is no longer made up of stable heterosexual relations. And as was the case with the divorce debate, all we're asking for really is the legal recognition of a real situation; an acknowledgement of reality in the law."
Nonetheless, Neil Falzon also argues that the law itself will not change certain realities surrounding gay relationships in Malta: not least, the subterfuge to which would-be parents have to resort in order to meet the often stringent adoption requirements from the child's country of origin.
"With this bill, Maltese law may permit same sex couples to adopt as a couple... but it will not change the situation in places like Russia, Cambodia, and other countries which will definitely not release children to be adopted by gay parents."
So the law leaves these people in the same situation? "Let's just say the practical difficulties of adoption - for instance, finding a child to adopt - will remain, regardless of the new law. However I think the two issues should be detached from each other. The fact that the law permits gay adoption is one thing... whether gay couples actually manage to adopt is another question, and it doesn't depend only on Maltese legislation."
Meanwhile Falzon anticipates other difficulties: not least, a possible conflict with the so-called 'embryo protection bill' (as the law regulating assisted procreation was significantly named).
"The two laws are contradictory," Falzon points out. "The embryo protection act denies IVF therapy to same-sex couples, and also criminalises sperm donation, making it punishable by imprisonment."
Admittedly, one does not always expect logical consistency from Maltese law, but the contradiction here is almost too glaring for words. So we have one law which allows gay couples to adopt children... and another which criminalises gay couples who have children through IVF. How does Falzon expect this contradiction to be resolved?
He shrugs. "This point was raised by the Attorney General, too. And he's right: the two laws are clearly in conflict. We knew this before presenting the draft bill, but we refused to allow the situation to influence the wording of the draft bill. We insisted on presenting the civil unions' bill as is... we didn't want to compromise our law because the previous law was flawed."
Falzon makes no secret of his distaste for the thought processes that went into the IVF legislation... and other legal instruments that operate along the same, clearly homophobic lines.
"The previous administration had also attempted to address the marriage equality issue through legislation, in the form of a cohabitation law," he points out, adding that 'history got in the way', with the result that this law never actually got off the ground.
Perhaps that is just as well. "The problem was that the law lumped same-sex relations with other forms of relationships that have nothing to do with 'marriage' at all," Falzon points out. "Personally I found it offensive that the government would attempt to recognize same-sex relationships based on intimacy and love, with other forms of families including brothers and sisters, or other family members, living under the same roof. Besides, the two issues needed to be addressed independently of each other. Yes, there was need for regulation of non-typical family models; but it is not the same need as the need for full marriage equality. The two issues are not interchangeable..."
But for all his support for the aims of the present administration (at least insofar as equality is concerned) Falzon also acknowledges that the devious arm of politics is not far beneath the surface of this latest twist in Malta's social development.
"I don't doubt that the Labour Party is genuinely committed to achieving equality. But let's be honest: it was also politically savvy enough to exploit the pink vote much more effectively than the PN."
Evidence of this apparent undercurrent of political opportunism may also be discerned in the same Labour Party's attitude towards the other issue with which Falzon is deeply concerned: immigration.
I put it to him that, for a government which has so far made all the right noises about gender and sexual orientation equality, the same Labour administration has often been shockingly insensitive and callous in its statements regarding immigration... especially towards the beginning of summer, when the prime minister used words like 'crisis' and 'emergency' to describe the arrival of 300 immigrants, mostly sub-Saharan Africans, in two weeks. (To put that into perspective, Sweden had just taken in 4,000 refugees from Syria).
Yet the same Maltese government seemed to suddenly moderated its tone when faced with two maritime tragedies in which an estimated 500 lives were lost over the past two weeks. How does Falzon account for this change in tone? It's not as though people have never died while trying to cross over to Europe from Africa...
"It is true that government's reaction was more moderate, and this is certainly welcomed. But it wasn't an ideal response either. If you look at how government responded to the first of the two tragedies... its reaction was to request solidarity for Malta. That was inappropriate, to say the least. If anyone needed solidarity it was the victims of the tragedy; their families, their relatives, the survivors... the children who were separated from their parents, and so on."
Meanwhile it has not exactly escaped notice that the same government's attitude towards the more recent waves of Syrian immigrants has also been markedly different. At the risk of trivializing the issue... does he think the difference is down to a simple question of skin colour? Is it just that the Syrians resemble us more than Somalis or Eritreans?
He shakes his head. "I think there is more to it than just the fact that they look more like us than Africans. I think it may also be easier to sympathise with Syrian refugees because the conflict they are escaping is more familiar to us: it's on the news every day. Which means it is also in our living rooms every day. When you see with your own eyes what situations these people are fleeing, it becomes difficult not to sympathise. The issue with most African asylum seekers is however different. Their conflicts, the problems these are escaping... we never get to see any of that."
As an example he refers to Eritrea: a country about which very little is actually known outside its own borders. "The situation in Eritrea is unbearable - it's one of the world's worst military dictatorships, with human rights agencies reporting unthinkable atrocities. Yet we never hear anything about it on the news. Which raises the question: on what basis do the media pick and choose which conflicts to report, and which to ignore? I'm not saying they shouldn't report on Syria... but why so little coverage of civil wars in Africa?"
Falzon is confident that if people were more aware of the root causes of immigration, their attitudes towards migrants would be different. And perhaps, he argues, so would the attitude of other European countries towards Malta's constant demands for 'solidarity'.
"It's a question of how you perceive the problem," he says in reply to the quizzical look on my face. "So far the emphasis in local discussions has been on how many migrants coming to Malta have been relocated to other EU countries. Anyone would think the overriding issue, from a global perspective, was actually Malta's own immigrant population, and not the millions of refugees in camps all over the world...
Falzon argues that this discrepancy may also explain the evident communication problems between Malta and Europe on the same issue. "Some European countries have from the outset shown a willingness to offer support. It's just not the sort of support people here evidently expected."
So what sort of support are we talking about? Falzon replies by pointing towards the thousands of refugees relocated from actual refugee camps on the borders of the world's trouble spots. "The trouble is that when we talk about a 'solution' to these problems, we tend to think about our own problems, which are not necessarily viewed as a number one priority by other countries. But when human rights agencies talk about the same problem, they will be referring to the most vulnerable groups imaginable - and these people will not be found in Marsa or Hal Far. They will be found living in terrible conditions in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, in Sudan and in Kenya."
EU member states, he adds, recognize the urgency of helping these people - but when they look at our own asylum seekers they don't see them as urgent cases at all.
"Life in Hal Far may not be perfect... but for all its faults it remains infinitely better than a refugee camp in Jordan, on the border with Syria. Any human rights NGO will automatically give priority to those refugees, and not to the ones whose asylum applications are already being processed."
Fair enough, but this doesn't address the issue of hundreds of people drowning as they try to reach Europe. Surely that is Europe's concern, too?
"It is, yes. This is why Europe also has to change its attitude towards immigration. Part of the problem is that there is no legal channel for bona fide asylum seekers to reach Europe without risking their lives. It is impossible for these people to fly in because no country will give them a visa. It is time we start talking about humanitarian visas... about creating channels through which people can safely avail of their right to seek asylum, in a way that is organised and properly planned. This is the sort of debate human rights agencies would like to see... not just individual countries complaining about their own problems."