This week, your correspondent – armed with a valid passport – was planning (this column is being written Sept. 20) to vacation on the island Republic of Malta, whose islands – the website lonelyplanet.com tells us – “are like nowhere else.” Indeed, the website adds, “Here you’ll find great prehistoric temples, fossil-studded cliffs, glittering hidden coves, thrilling diving opportunities and a history of remarkable intensity.”
According to Wikipedia, there are indications that the country has been inhabited since pre-historic times. It has seen many occupiers – including Napoleon – in its lengthy history, until achieving its independence from Britain in 1964, and joined the European Union in 2004.
There will be much to absorb for such a relatively tiny place – which looks like an almost perceptible speck on a map – and a lot to explore in just a few days. Maybe I’ll even find the legendary Maltese falcon – or is that just another Hollywood myth?
But, leaving aside for the moment the anticipated pleasures of R&R at an island paradise, we can’t forget the fact that Malta finds itself smack up against a geopolitical cataclysm.
Migrants – many refugees from war-torn Syria and Libya – along with Palestinians from Gaza – are being smuggled out of their desolate land through tunnels in Egypt and packed into boats bound for destinations in Europe. Those fleeing reportedly pay thousands of dollars for what they see as an opportunity for a better life elsewhere.
But their journeys are typically perilous, as evidenced by a recent episode chronicled by, among other media outlets, BBC News World which, through the Times of Malta, reported the deaths of “at least 300 migrants” who “drowned off Malta’s coast” on Sept. 12.
Survivors, brought to Malta’s shores, told the Times of Malta and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that “the smugglers deliberately rammed the migrants’ boat after they refused to move to a smaller boat from the fishing vessel they were on,” leaving its passengers to fend for themselves in the sea.
The Times of Malta account said the IOM had logged “about 2,900” migrant drowning deaths in the Mediterranean so far this year, up from 700 recorded in 2013.
Malta – just 50 miles south of Sicily – has provided shelters for several thousand of the desperate migrants who arrive at the islands and Italy has launched “Mare Nostrum,” a search and rescue enterprise pledged to save migrants in peril in the waters off its coast.
Still, the number of deaths is mounting.
Meanwhile, Malta finds itself grappling with another dilemma of increasingly global concern: the deadly Ebola virus that has emerged in West Africa and threatens to engulf the region and beyond.
On Sept. 19, the Associated Press reported that Malta turned away a cargo ship, enroute to Ukraine from Guinea, carrying a crew of 21 including a Filipino reportedly showing symptoms of Ebola. AP said the boat’s captain had sought to dock in Malta to get medical treatment for the stricken crewman.
But Malta Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was quoted as saying that, “We cannot endanger our health system” and that it was impossible to know whether the captain was “understating or overstating” the man’s condition.
Maltese coast guard vessels escorted the boat, MV Western Copenhagen, out of the harbor, according to the AP.
And so, it seems that even in paradise, there is no escape from the crushing realities of the world.
– Ron Leir