Malta, Migrants and Drowning

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VALLETTA, MALTA—It is the memories of the dead children that keep Marco Cauchi up at night.

“I have recovered hundreds of corpses from the sea. And when you find decomposed children — it is not nice. Then you go home and you see your own children,” said Cauchi.

“How different the world seems when you see these things.”

Cauchi, a big burly man, has been a sailor in Malta for more than 28 years. He started as a deckhand in a naval division of the Maltese Armed Forces, rising up the ranks until he retired as a captain.

For years, he has seen waves of migrants come to the country’s shores. Over the last two decades, the death toll is estimated in the tens of thousands. So far in 2014, the International Organization for Migration estimates at least 3,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe.

The migrants’ boats that arrive near Malta mostly come from the shores of a destabilized Libya: a country with no government to control its own borders and coasts. Now a network of human traffickers sends thousands of would-be immigrants in overloaded boats northward toward Europe.

Ten years ago, the migrants were mostly from sub-Saharan Africa — countries like Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria — but in the last two years, with the various conflicts in the Middle East, there has been a shift to immigrants from Syria, Iraq and Gaza.

The more people in the boat, the greater the profit for the traffickers, so they are frequently overloaded. In October 2013, off the Italian island of Lampedusa, 170 kilometres east of Malta, a boat carrying more than 500 migrants overturned; hundreds drowned.

Cauchi has seen many boats similarly overloaded. Last month, there was one so jammed with people they could not sit.

“I saw one man from Syria with his wife and five children,” Cauchi said. “They were all there holding hands. And I said, ‘You must be courageous, maybe crazy to do such a voyage in that crowded boat.’ He said to me, ‘You have to be in my position to tell me that I am crazy.’”

From romance to aid-workers

Last year, Christopher and Regina Catrambone were entrepreneurs leading a charmed life in sunny Malta. He is American, originally from New Orleans, she is an Italian from Calabria; they describe themselves as a “unisoul couple” who run their own finance and insurance business. In July 2013, the couple decided to charter a boat captained by Cauchi for a romantic cruise around the Mediterranean Sea.

What happened on the trip changed their life.

“I saw a jacket floating in the sea,” said Regina Catrambone. “When I asked Marco, he told me, ‘that this jacket probably belonged to one of the people who didn’t make it.’ That was a strong message to us … in that moment we got to see the Mediterranean Sea in another way.”

The same day, Pope Francis, in his first official visit outside of Rome, arrived in Lampedusa and denounced the “globalization of indifference” that he said had affected the migrant issue. “We have become used to the suffering of others. It doesn’t affect us. It doesn’t interest us. It’s not our business … This (issue) is like a thorn in my heart.”

The Catrambones were moved. Devout Catholics, they felt helping the seaborne migrants was their spiritual calling. Last winter, they travelled to Virginia and bought a small ship, renaming her The Phoenix. They asked Cauchi to be its captain and sailed it back across the Atlantic. Then they had the ship fitted with a medical clinic and a drone-launching pad.

In August, The Phoenix left Valletta with one goal: to make sure no migrant died at sea. The Catrambones say it doesn’t matter if a migrant is landed in Europe and then deported. What matters is only that they do not drown in the crossing.

There are many people on Malta who disagree with the Catrambones’ ideals. It is a small country, half the size of Toronto, with a population of more than 450,000 people. Many here are afraid the island will be overwhelmed by newly arriving immigrants.

One of those people is Norman Lowell, a Maltese artist and author turned radical would-be politician who says, “Let them take the migrants back to Africa.”

Lowell is a man with ultrastrong views on issues like purity of race and immigration. He is a supporter of France’s Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Greek Golden Dawn Party. Lowell garnered 7,000 votes in the last European election in Malta. Some commentators in this conservative country see his relative success as a sign of deep unease about the waves of migrants who are literally being washed up on their shores.

“It is an unfolding tragedy,” said Lowell. “This island will soon turn into the Haiti of the Mediterranean. These people, these primitive Africans, have — uninvited — barged in on us.”

Lowell is not alone in his underlying fear of the migrant situation.

“Sometimes someone will say things like, ‘If you see a migrant shoot them,’” says Cauchi, the captain. “They are not racist, just ignorant. If you don’t see what is happening on sea, you don’t understand.”

Mare nostrum

Other parts of Europe are also struggling with the rise in migrants. In October, the Italian government cancelled Mare Nostrum, a multimillion-euro program in which the Italian navy tried to rescue migrants at sea.

The British government announced at the end of October that it would not fund a program to replace Mare Nostrum as these “encouraged traffickers and immigrants to try their luck, in attempting the dangerous crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.” It is a policy that some critics have dubbed “Drown a migrant to save a migrant.”

The Catrambones have stepped into the political vacuum. “The immigration was there before Mare Nostrum,” says Regina Catrambone. “Today, what is happening is that the push factors are more than the pull factors. If you are happy and you live a good life in your country, why would you leave your country? The people who we met in the sea, they want to go back to their countries. They are running away.”

Khalifa Jawara, who now lives at the Marsa open detention centre for migrants in the port area of Valletta, agrees. He claims he had to leave his native Gambia for political reasons. He travelled across the Sahara and then was on a boat for five days.

“The man who steered the boat did not know what he was doing. He got his passage for free if he steered. We were lost. We went around and around. The waves were so high. There were 300 of us on the boat; we thought we were going to die.”

Jawara didn’t want to land in Malta. “I thought it was Italy when we landed,” he said. “Then they took us to a detention centre and wanted us to sign papers that would let them deport us. We refused and there was a huge fight. They tear-gassed us and put us in handcuffs.”

After seven months, Jawara was released. “I do not want to return to Gambia. It will be my death warrant, but I do not want to stay here in Malta. Just let me go to (continental) Europe.”

As Jawara drinks a cup of coffee he speaks of the racism in Malta. How many people do not like to sit next to Africans on the bus, or the bars that will not allow them to enter.

However, for Regina Catrambone the situation of migrants in Malta is, in some ways, immaterial. What matters is that the migrants are alive.

At the end of October, The Phoenix returned from the seas. In two months, the ship and its crew have been credited with helping more than 3,000 migrants — giving them such things as food, water and life jackets; they also directly saved the lives of 300 people, taking them on board and bringing them to an Italian port.

“Each time one of these boats (sinks), our ethical and moral values drown as well,” she says. “We save the whales. We save the dolphins. We need to save human beings. They represent us. They are us.”


Save International Sport – Buy Puma!

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There are some blogs that should be repeated every few months. This is one that I posted in 2011, when we going through another FIFA corruption scandal. Now the international sports world is witnessing another; the post is worth reading again:

Dear Concerned Football Fan,

So you are are upset by the latest corruption scandal coming out of FIFA?    Here is what you need to do.

Please do not bother with the carefully-worded petitions to sports officials.  Please do not bother with the appeals to the media.  Please do not bother with campaigns for politicians.

The sports officials will ignore your petitions.   The journalists will write, if you are lucky, brief articles about your appeal and then go back to their usual reports of tactics, athletes’ hamstrings or morale ‘before the big game’. The politicians largely cannot change anything in the sports world, so will be unable to help you.

However, there is one, effective way of cleaning up international sports.  A world-wide boycott of sponsors who tolerate corruption in sports organizations.

In brief, if you want to clean up international football, then buy Puma.  

I want to be clear, I have nothing against Adidas. They are a reputable company that makes very good sports clothes and shoes.  However, FIFA as it is currently constituted is an organization sponsored and supported by Adidas.  Adidas and Puma loathe each other.  They have done so since the founding Dassler brothers, both living in a small German town after the second world war, had a bitter argument.  The personal feud has dimmed in recent years, but Adidas and Puma are still intense competitive rivals – so write to Adidas and say something like:

Dear Adidas,

I like your products. I would like to buy them. However, I will not do so while you support FIFA as it is currently managed. I will buy Puma, your rivals.   I will continue to do so until FIFA implements some of the Ten Commandments for Anti-Corruption in Sports.   Then I will consider buying your excellent products.  



Repeat this procedure for every single major sponsor of sports organizations.  Coca Cola supports FIFA write to them and tell them that, reluctantly, you will buy only Pepsi. 

Do two things,  make sure that the executives realize that you are not blaming them or their products and secondly, organize a proper and effective boycott.  Get your friends to do it, use social media, write to the dozens of organizations that are trying to clean-up international sports. If one-hundred-thousand people can back Sports Illustrated Grant Wahl to run as President of FIFA, then one-hundred-thousand people saying they will buy Puma, drink Pepsi and not fly with the Emirates (who withdrew this sponsorship of FIFA last month) will have a massive effect.  

Sport is facing an unprecedented wave of corruption. It needs people to stand up and fight for it.  Will you be someone who sits on the sidelines and complains, or will you stand up to defend the sport that we all love?

Note:  In fairness to Puma, I should add that they are one of the few sports sponsors I have ever seen that pulled out of financing a football league due to corruption.

Puma took this courageous stance in South Africa - a league crawling with corruption and fixing.   If only other sponsors would mirror their courageous stance we could clean up sport quickly.



Two Questions to show Why Bombing ISIL is Not Always a Great Idea

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As the horror of the latest ISIL atrocity hits the headlines (the beheading of 18 people, including Peter Kassig, an American medical worker) here are two questions to understand why the western military response to ISIL will, largely, not work.

First question:

If you are Canadian can you tell the difference between a French-Canadian and an English-Canadian?  If you are British, can you tell the difference between a Scotsman and an Englishman?  If you are an American, can you tell the difference between a Texan and someone from Arkansas?  If you are a Russian, can you tell the difference between a Ukrainian and a Russian?

Ummmm, probably: but it usually takes at least a thirty-seconds of conversation while you listen to their accent.  Even then there will be mistakes, the average person might get it right 80% of the time.

Could you still tell the difference between these groups of people at fifty-meters?

No, not really: the visual differences - clothing, head-gear, body hair – in these societies are more class-based than ethnic.   Working-class people tend to dress differently than middle-class people. Those differences in dress are far more striking than regional differences between Québécois and Anglos or Texans and the rest. 

Could you tell the difference between these people at three-thousand-five-hundred meters?

Of course not: the idea is a joke.

Yet this is the concept of aerial bombing campaign in an insurgency campaign: that decisions of life and death choices can be meted out accurately at such a distance.    When combatants do not often wear conventional military uniforms or drive military vehicles.

Even worse, the people making these life and death decisions are not fellow-countrymen – but as alien to the country as the Japanese are to North America or Europe.   They are well-meaning outsiders who have no idea of the different cultures or languages of the people they are bombing.

This is the situation in Iraq and Syria.   Quick – say the difference between a Shia and Sunni Muslim living in Fallujah?  Okay, now what is the difference between a Sunni and Shia living in downtown Baghdad?    Of course the average western cannot tell the difference.  The average Iraqi can only tell them apart in the same way we can tell regional differences in our countries.

It gets even worse.  Can anyone tell the difference between members of the al-Bu Nimr tribe who are fighting for ISIL, from the members of the al-Bu Nimr tribe who are fighting against them?  Add to that list other Anbar tribes like the al-Bu Assaf, al-Jumaili, al-Issawi, al-Jaber, al-Marri, and al-Qaim who are divided between fighting for and against ISIL. 

The results of this ignorance were shown starkly in the video that motivated Bradley/Chelsea Manning to give up information to WikiLeaks.   An innocent group of men going to a school to drop off their children were bombed by an American drone because some nameless twerp thousands of miles away thought the men were al-Qaeda.  Some of their rescuers (trying to drag the children free of the burning wreckage) were also killed.  It was an atrocity.

The strategic problem is that when you kill innocent people it causes all kinds of problems:  like now their relatives will want to kill you. 

Defenders of air strikes will claim that this ignorance of local customs and culture is not a problem.   The American and their allies can rely on intelligence gathering.  Native Iraqis telling them where ISIL is harbouring their fighters.

If it were only so.

Second Question:

Why do people report their neighbours to the authorities?

Some of the time they do it for honourable reasons – a desire to better their society.

However, much of the time it is for dishonourable reasons – they want to sleep with their neighbour’s wife, they want his land, he plays his music too loud.     There have been many, many incidents like this in the long, awful years of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here is an excerpt from Rory Stewart’s review of Anand Gopal’s excellent new book on Afghanistan:

"Gopal, a Wall Street Journal and Christian Science Monitor reporter, investigates, for example, a US counterterrorist operation in January 2002. US Central Command in Tampa, Florida, had identified two sites as likely “al-Qaeda compounds.” It sent in a Special Forces team by helicopter; the commander, Master Sergeant Anthony Pryor, was attacked by an unknown assailant, broke his neck as they fought and then killed him with his pistol; he used his weapon to shoot further adversaries, seized prisoners, and flew out again, like a Hollywood hero.

As Gopal explains, however, the American team did not attack al-Qaeda or even the Taliban. They attacked the offices of two district governors, both of whom were opponents of the Taliban. They shot the guards, handcuffed one district governor in his bed and executed him, scooped up twenty-six prisoners, sent in AC-130 gunships to blow up most of what remained, and left a calling card behind in the wreckage saying “Have a nice day. From Damage, Inc.” Weeks later, having tortured the prisoners, they released them with apologies. It turned out in this case, as in hundreds of others, that an Afghan “ally” had falsely informed the US that his rivals were Taliban in order to have them eliminated. In Gopal’s words:

The toll…: twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees dead, twenty-six taken prisoner, and a few who could not be accounted for. Not one member of the Taliban or al-Qaeda was among the victims. Instead, in a single thirty-minute stretch the United States had managed to eradicate both of Khas Uruzgan’s potential governments, the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.

Gopal then finds the interview that the US Special Forces commander gave a year and a half later in which he celebrated the derring-do, and recorded that seven of his team were awarded bronze stars, and that he himself received a silver star for gallantry."

(Gopal’s book - No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes - is available here.  I strongly strong recommend you buy the book:   The rest of Rory Stewart’s insightful review is here:

These two questions are not to say that air strikes never work.  It is that they work only when the air force can clearly distinguish between the opponents (and my colleagues in Northern Iraq driving in a press convoy were once attacked by the U.S. air force).   In the circumstances when the differences between the forces are clear (sieges, trench warfare, etc) then air superiority is absolutely important.  However, this is very rarely the case in the current conflict with ISIL.

So if U.S.  air strikes don’t work effectively (unless under very restricted circumstances) in combating ISIL – what will work?   The thing that has won wars since the time of Alexander the Great: boots on the ground of a tough, well-organized, well-focused force who understands the culture and language of the area and can make intelligent strategic decisions.   There are not any of those in Iraq.



Australia's Humiliation

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Below is an article I wrote for The Australian newspaper this weekend about what the Eckert/Garcia Report summary meant to their country.   It could be applied, sadly, in many other places.

“For goodness sake, don’t say too much!   Australia is bidding for the right to host the World Cup in 2022 and we do not want any unnecessary scandals to upset anyone.”

It was a joke: cocktail-hour small-talk at a reception for athletes and sports officials in 2009.   I was there trying to warn Australia’s sports community about the dangers of match-fixing linked to Asian gambling gangs.   The speaker was a very senior member of the last government with responsibility for a vast section of Australian sport.  I will not give their name. It is not fair given the context of the conversation.  I was not speaking to them as a journalist; they were not expecting to be on-the-record.

However, ‘the joke’ perfectly sums up Australia’s humiliating loss of values and ethics in chasing the poisoned chalice of hosting the world’s largest sporting event.   Years before Australian sport was hit by a series of match-fixing scandals, senior government officials did not want to even discuss the issue in case it upset FIFA.

$43 million dollars in public taxpayers money has been flushed down the toilet to try and convince a group of some of the most reprehensible men in sports (which is saying a great deal) that Australia should host the World Cup of 2022.   There are schools, community centres, hospitals, environmental projects and charities full of decent people who could have made better use of the money. 

Yet Australian sports officials chased the dream of hosting the World Cup.  In the chase, they threw overboard just about every value that the nation holds dear.   They threw money into dubious projects, they helped finance unlikely schemes, and they trucked up to dodgy characters.

This is the summation of Australia’s bid written by the report on the report about possible corruption in the bidding for the World Cup.    A lawyer on FIFA’s Ethics Committee Hans-Joachim Eckert wrote a summation of an investigation by an American former anti-terrorist lawyer Michael J. Garcia into the subject.  The Eckert/Garcia report hammers away at Australia.  They are right to do so, yet in focusing so much attention on Australia the report leaves unanswered huge questions about the actions of some of the other bidding countries.

The question that nearly everyone in the sporting world wanted them to examine was “Did the Russians and Qataris – the eventual winners of the World Cup hosting rights – cheat or bribe to get the tournaments?”  Oddly this is the question that the investigators seemed to have skipped around. The investigators wrote that they visited all the hosting countries – including Australia – with three exceptions: Russia, Qatar and South Korea.

Quite how you produce a credible investigation never having visited the country that you are supposed to investigate is a mystery.  Yet the FIFA investigators should consider entering gymnastics. Their ability to twist, turn and contort shows definite promise in that sport.

The Russian bid team did not send their computer records – emails, invoices and the like – to the FIFA investigators. Their excuse?  They had leased out the computers then returned them.  Even their executive’s G-mail accounts were mysteriously unavailable.  No word on why the investigators simply did not ask for the passwords of their accounts.

What made this curious apathy on the investigators’ part so strange was that the report also mentions that Japanese football executives openly stated to the investigators that they were working with the Russians to form a voting alliance to win their hosting rights.  This is a clear example of breaking the rules of the hosting competition.  Yet this serious accusation was not followed up and Russia’s successful bid was given a clean bill of health.

As for Qatar’s World Cup bid: what can one say about the possibility of hosting the world’s largest sporting tournament in a country so dull it makes Canberra look like Sodom and Gomorrah?  Blessed with temperatures of +50 centigrade during the month of the tournament, a deeply conservative society (wearing shorts or drinking alcohol are not encouraged) and a treatment of migrant workers likened to slave labour or as the Nepali Ambassador described the country - “an open jail”.  Qatar was the only place named as being “high-risk” by FIFA tournament inspectors, yet strangely it won the hosting rights. 

One of its chief football executives and Asia’s top football official Mohammed bin Hammam was described by the Qatari bid team shortly before the tournament was given to them as their “biggest asset”.  

Shortly afterwards, he was thrown out of FIFA for offering bribes.

In one particular salient paragraph of the Eckert/Garcia report it says, “To assume, e.g. that envelopes full of cash are given in exchange for votes on a FIFA World Cup host (sic) are naïve.   Corruption … is conducted in a much more sophisticated way, including money transfers through several different accounts of consultants, trusts, offshore companies, etc.”

Ummmm, actually… passing envelopes full of cash is the way that some FIFA corruption is conducted.    Sounds too incredible?  Then check out the speech by then-FIFA bigwig Jack Warner at a meeting of football officials where he urged them to take envelopes stuffed with $25,000 in cash.  The man who gave the money?  The Qatari Mohammed bin Hammam.   The date of the meeting?  Six months after the Qataris had won the World Cup.    Yet the Eckert/Garcia report bends over backwards to claim that bin Hammam was peripheral figure in the Qatari bid.

The report goes on to say that, “The perception, for example, according to which a World Cup vote must have been “bought” if the host selected is not the one that has been generally considered a favourite (a position that is quite common in the media) is mere speculation…”

The word “bought” in conjunction with the Qatari World Cup bid was not from any over-sensationalistic media: it was the word that Jérôme Valcke, the second-highest official in FIFA, used in a private e-mail where he wrote that Qatar had “bought” the World Cup.   When the e-mail was leaked to the media, Valcke held a press conference where he claimed that he had not meant Qatar had bought the World Cup, more like “bought” the World Cup in an as-yet-unexplained, unannounced manner that must have been legal and moral.   Again this is an issue that the investigators skipped past.

This is the world that the Australian bid team decided to enter into. This is the world that taxpayer’s money was wasted in. This is the world where Australian values were betrayed.  It should never happen again. Until the world of international sports officials is truly investigated, then Australia should do what it has always done in arenas and stadiums around the globe: send its athletes in to win and then get them home.


Does Anyone Believe FIFA?

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There must be someone, somewhere, who believes the FIFA take on the Qatari World Cup debacle.   I am not sure who they are or where they live: presumably some gentle, naïve soul who sheltered from the world lives peaceably herding yaks in Mongolia or is cut off from communication in a distant Himalayan valley.  For the rest of us, however, today’s release of a synopsis of the ‘Garcia Report’ into allegations of possible bribes connected with the Qatari bid for the 2022 World Cup is just another example of the FIFA’s breathtaking lack of credibility.

Who won?

Strangely, it was a Canadian woman:  Alexandra Wrage. She was the Toronto lawyer who was invited into FIFA as an independent expert on anti-corruption. In true female Canadian-style, Wrage took absolutely no nonsense.   She came, she saw, she left.   Stating for the public record that FIFA was an old-boys club whose rules would never change, short of a major revolution, and that she had no desire to lose her reputation working for such an institution.

Her words must be burning in the frontal lobe of the one clear loser in this mess (aside from international sport) - Michael Garcia.    You have to feel sorry for the poor man.  Before he came into FIFA, he had the reputation as a tough legal eagle.   While inside FIFA he tried to play fair.  The officials there nodded, smiled and then chewed Garcia up and spat him out.  At best, he looks a neutered, intellectual eunuch.   At worst, Garcia looks like a dim twit who was nice to a bunch of people who ate him for breakfast.  Either way, his professional reputation has taken a massive hit.  It is difficult to think Garcia will ever fully recover from his short involvement with FIFA.

Sadly, much of the synopsis of his report does much the same to anyone decent enough to try and do the right thing.   Two whistleblowers are singled out for particular blame.  Mohammed bin Hammam – one of the key leaders of Qatari (and Asian) football at the time of the bid – is treated as if he had absolutely no influence in the winning bid.   The English bid team who shamefully trucked up to Jack Warner are castigated (rightly so).  The winning Russian bid team whose computer records were unavailable to investigators are not.

Here is what is going on. Years ago, I met a FIFA insider who was deeply concerned about the way his organization was governing world football.  He summed up the calculation at the heart of FIFA, “All these scandals are ignored by the leaders, because they know that when the average fan goes into the stadium and they see the twenty-two players on a bright-green grass pitch they forget about everything else.”

P.S.   One bright spot in this mess is there is a very good series of stories written by the Sunday Times Insight Team (along with Andrew Jennings) that cast more light on the Qatari/FIFA mess than any official report.  They appeared in June of 2014 but are still worth the read.

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