Elysia Rezki is a student of European law at the University of Malta. She is currently undertaking a placement at QCEA where she is supporting our human rights programme. Back in Malta, she is also a volunteer with a human rights NGO working with migrants and refugees. Here, she discusses the phenomenon of anti-migrant rhetoric in Maltese public discourse.
Anti-migrant rhetoric is becoming a more and more concerning phenomena in the online world.
Racism, xenophobia and a rising far right movement in Europe have all contributed towards an online landscape increasingly characterised by hostility and hatred towards migrants and refugees. In June 2018 the Quaker Council for European Affairs published a report on anti-migrant hate speech; calling for greater action to be taken whilst comprehensively exploring the nature of online hate speech. This year QCEA launched the #ChooseRespect project, which aims to tackle anti-migrant hate speech within the context of the 2019 European Parliament Elections.
Nonetheless, online hate speech remains a significant challenge in Europe. In June 2018 a Eurobarometer survey revealed that hate speech is one of the most prevalent types of illegal content encountered online by Europeans. According to the survey, those in Malta are most likely to encounter it (55% of respondents), with the Czech Republic (53%) and Bulgaria (52%) shortly following.
As a volunteer working with refugees and migrants in Malta, this does not come as a surprise to me. One only has to scroll through the comments section of any Maltese news portal on the topic of migrants and refugees to witness this incredibly hostile atmosphere.
Malta’s geographical location and extensive search and rescue (SAR) zone within the Mediterranean Sea means Malta must play a key role in the reception of persons seeking international protection. Migration, therefore, takes up a continual (and always controversial) place at the forefront of public and political discourse.
A 2017 study conducted by the University of Malta revealed, rather expectedly, that migrants are the most prominent group targeted by online hate speech. The study also revealed that most people are unsure or unwilling to report hate speech, with the most cited reason being their lack of confidence in the authorities ability to do something about it. A lack of confidence has become particularly visible in recent years in Malta. The murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia and response (or lack thereof) by the Maltese authorities to investigate her death, despite huge international pressure, will have undoubtedly intensified this distrust in authorities.
Under Maltese law, hate speech consists of threatening, abusive or insulting words intended to stir up (or are likely to stir up) violence or hatred against another person or group of persons on the basis of their gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, colour, ethnic origin, religion or belief, or political or other opinion. The Criminal Code prescribes a sentence of six to eighteen months for the offence.
Last year, anti-migrant comments on a Facebook post of a young social inclusion activist prompted a complaint to the police and subsequent hearing at the Court of Magistrates (Il -Pulizija v Brandon Bartolo). Whilst the Magistrate acquitted the defendant of hate speech charges – deeming the comments to be mere expressions of opinion – an appeal was successfully lodged by the Attorney General. In a landmark judgement in January 2019 the Court of Criminal Appeal reversed this judgement. The judge declared that the offensive nature of his comments incited violence and racial hatred. This conclusion was met irrespective of the intention of the defendant, but rather with a focus on the comments depreciative affect of those targeted by the comments.
Speech inciting hate, hostility and discrimination towards migrants can be a precursor to acts of violence at worst, and in any case will serve as fuel to a fire of intolerant attitudes and a ‘fear of the other’ as so often harnessed by populist politics. As highlighted by the QCEA report, “[migrants] who have experienced discrimination show significantly lower levels of trust and feel less attached to the country in which they live”. This can only hamper the integration efforts which are so necessary in maintaining a cohesive society and limiting polarisation.
Tackling online hate speech is no simple task. It will involve an acknowledgement of the cause and effects by all relevant stakeholders, as well as careful and creative initiatives, such as the #ChooseRespect project. A strong emphasis should be taken on better and more informed education, as well as a more mindful approach to the language we use when communicating on the topic of migration. With elections coming up all across Europe, politicians must be cautious not to resort to anti-migrant rhetoric on the back of the fear and anxiety of the European electorate.
“[O]ur capacity to overcome fear of the other ultimately depends on our collective will to build truly inclusive and resilient societies, in which the politics of division can no longer find a home.”