Marsamxett Harbour, Malta

By Darrin Zammit Lupi

I don’t know his name. He’s just another guy sitting on a police bus looking out of the window. It was the same sort of scene I’ve photographed on countless occasions over the past decade or so. But this chap was looking intently and intensely, straight at me, through my camera lens and into my mind’s eye. His piercing, haunting gaze was burrowing itself deeper into the innermost recesses of my psyche as I keep looking back at the photo.

I didn’t think much of it at the time. I knew it was an image I would probably include in my edit but it wasn’t until I was looking at the photo on my computer screen that his eyes, his expression, the texture on the dirty windows, really got to me.

GALLERY: DANGEROUS CROSSING

Sixty-eight African would-be immigrants had just disembarked from the Armed Forces of Malta patrol boat that rescued them 70 nautical miles south of the tiny island of Malta bang in the center of the Mediterranean. Many were ill, injured, exhausted and barely able to stand.

The youngest was a day old, born out at sea to a Somali woman who must have been unimaginably desperate to attempt what is such a dangerous crossing from Libya to Europe. Over the past decade, thousands have died in the graveyard that the central Mediterranean has become.

The previous day, the Maltese government had threatened to immediately repatriate a group of new arrivals back to Libya without due process, drawing the ire of many NGOs who work in the immigration field, and leading to the European Court of Human Rights to issue an urgent interim order blocking the deportation at the eleventh hour. NGOs protesting outside the police headquarters where the immigrants were being held incommunicado had listened to their radios with bated breathe which turned to great relief as Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made a statement in parliament that he would respect the court’s decision. Sadly though, his threatened pushback, even if only a bluff to get the rest of the European Union to take notice of the problem Malta faces, has unwittingly fanned the flames of xenophobia and racism to a degree not evident before.