There are two stark ways of looking at the migration issue in Malta.
But instead of trying to find the common ground, we often find ourselves attacking or silencing one another, making a much-needed conversation increasingly difficult and taboo.
As Maltese Black Lives Matter activists raise much-needed awareness over the experiences of ostracised and abused black people in Malta, more Maltese are feeling ignored than ever.
The world experienced a wake-up call recently when it came to the inequality that black people in many first and second world countries live with every day, and have lived with all their lives. Even in Malta, black Maltese people openly spoke about the racist abuse they’ve experienced their whole lives.
And when it comes to migrants fleeing war zones or looking for a better life, it goes without saying that Malta has a clear duty to save any human being in peril, no matter the situation on the island. Leaving boatloads of people floating in the sea without any food, water or fuel is never something we can have on our conscience, as frustrating as it seems to be for a segment of the Maltese population.
However, that empathy we feel for migrants must also be shared with Maltese people who are feeling more disenfranchised than ever.
Amidst an economic downturn and an ongoing global pandemic that won’t seem to go away, people in Malta are more on edge than ever. Men and women are worried about their families’ safety, the security of their finances and the future of the island.
A recent survey found that immigration was the top concern among the Maltese public, more than COVID-19 – yet the only ‘debate’ found on the island regarding migration invariably ends with people taking radically opposing sides, throwing mud at each other and trying to simplify each other’s arguments – either by dismissing all migration concerns as racism or by dismissing any pro-migration stances as the result of some neoliberal agenda.
And this week, some of this tension came to the forefront in the form of a 17-minute viral video filmed by an angry man in his car.
Most of what Ryan Fenech said was condemnable. Tarring an entire race for the actions of one individual is both incorrect and illogical. Being emotional after finding out your parents were attacked is understandable; threatening mass violence against an entire community is not.
It’s very worrying that a man who is genuinely scared for his family’s safety is so overcome by fear, anxiety and desperation that he ends up targeting an entire race while beating his chest and shouting violent threats.
And the fact that this video got so much more national attention than a suspected gangland shooting that left one Maltese youth dead speaks volumes of the nation.
However, nearly 5,000 people shared the video, including government officials and other prominent Maltese personalities. It racked up nearly 200,000 views – and it would be nonsensical to say that every single one of those viewers is a numbskull racist.
And this type of incident isn’t isolated – just weeks ago, pop starlet Gaia Cauchi opened up after her grandparents were randomly attacked by a black man while walking in Ħamrun. Her grandma ended up being hospitalised.
Should it make a difference if the perpetrator is black or white? Obviously not – bad people come in all shapes and colours.
For many people, unfortunately, it’s nearly natural to associate blackness with fear.
Walking down the street, many people still automatically feel more threatened if they see a group of black men than white men – even if they are the exact same age and behaving the same way.
Their visibility makes it easy to use them as scapegoats. And for black Maltese people, as well as families with black people in their midst, these kinds of videos only make it more dangerous for them to be themselves in the streets of Malta.
Yet, the reality of Maltese people saying they are no longer feeling safe in their localities due to increasing migration and changing demographics should not be ignored.
Dismissing their concerns as “racist” is merely going to make them feel even more disenfranchised and lead them to dumb conclusions.
Worse still, if ignored for too long, this ostracising and cancelling of people as soon as they say something offensive amidst their emotion might lead them to more extremist views. Just look at the election of Donald Trump in America, the Brexit referendum in the UK, or what is happening in Orban’s Hungary – all results of the “common man” being ignored and laughed at for too long.
It’s not even happening far away – let’s not forget Matteo Salvini, who is openly described as far-right, became Deputy Prime Minister of Italy in 2018.
Individually, we don’t have the power or ability to stop people being attacked in the streets. That’s an issue of better policing and stronger community ties, though it is something we should demand from our authorities.
But we do have the ability to debate and communicate.
For many progressives in Malta, Ryan Fenech’s video was nothing but racist trash, meant to be ignored and made fun of.
For others, it was a breath of fresh air in a media landscape that often ignores everything they say.
Blaming a race for the individuals of one person, no matter what they did to your family, is just dumb. But ignoring valid points someone says in a rant because most of it is trash, is just as problematic.
Ryan Fenech may face legal ramifications for the threats he said online, and if he is found to have broken the law, rightly so.
But to say that Ryan has nothing of value to say at all means you aren’t paying attention to the Maltese people in 2020.