Let’s not lose sight of humanity

By courting the super-rich, and treating the lowest strata of society as criminals, the government is sending out the message that human dignity is only appraised on the basis of money

22 November 2016, 10:06am
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
The surprise decision to re-arrest and detain 32 failed asylum seekers, some of whom had been living in Malta for years, represents an inauspicious turning point in Malta’s uneasy handling of the immigration phenomenon.

On Monday, 33 migrants were called in to renew their documents at the police headquarters. On arrival, they were rounded up, arrested and taken to the Safi detention centre. There was no press release of any kind; the Home Affairs Ministry confirmed the arrests in response to media inquiries, adding that one was found to enjoy temporary humanitarian protection. The government also confirmed plans to deport the rest.

MaltaToday is informed that the group includes men and women who have been living in Malta for years. According to Neil Falzon, of the Aditus Foundation, some had been living in Malta for about eight years, working legally and paying taxes.

“It is unfortunate that people living in Malta, and fulfilling their obligations by reporting to police, are detained. These people are not hiding and they are fulfilling all their obligations,” Falzon said.

Separately, human rights NGOs said in a statement: “Overnight, and without a clear plan of action, the Ministry has thrown people into the dark about their future by robbing them of the little security [temporary protection] provided... The Ministry must be made aware of the human consequences of this decision, whereby rights granted are being unfairly and cruelly withdrawn.”

Admittedly, the situation regarding failed asylum seekers was never rosy to begin with. Though administrative procedures exist for asylum seekers to claim some form of legal status, it has always been an open secret that no such provisions exist for those applicants who are rejected. Past efforts to deal with this issue included providing temporary (renewable) work permits. But there was never any strategic plan for the long-term.

This creates myriad difficulties when faced with a mass-arrest on this scale. Technically, the Home Affairs Ministry is right to argue that these people do not qualify for any form of humanitarian protection. But those 32 individuals were still given the impression, at administrative level, that they could continue to reside in Malta. Many had found jobs and had been contributing to the economy for years. In fact, it was on the pretext of ‘renewing’ their documents that they were duped into collaborating in their own arrest.

When talking about justice, one cannot limit oneself only to a strict application of the law. Even if we do just that, the case for their arrest still looks suspicious. If the government is applying the law by arresting and deporting these people... then it was contravening the same law by providing them with legal documentation to stay in the first place. 

From a moral perspective alone, the act itself was disreputable and shady: we first encouraged them to think they were being allowed to remain, and even to establish work and family connections here... then suddenly, from one moment to the next, we treated them like criminals.

Naturally, this is not to say that the situation, in its totality, should be retained. But this newspaper would argue that any change to the existing (unofficial) policy regarding failed asylum seekers cannot be retroactively applied. If there is to be a change in procedure, it should apply only for those undocumented immigrants who enter the country from that point onwards. Those already here should at least be given a chance to regularise their position, on the basis of the contributions they have already made to the country.

Besides, even if we had to – for a moment – put the solidarity argument aside and look at the planned deportation from a purely economic point of view, things still do not make sense. The economy is at full throttle and we are almost at full employment. Malta needs workers – in fact thousands of third country nationals are currently being employed, and thousands more are needed.

The number of legally employed workers hailing from the Philippines – a Far East country whose government actively assists its citizens to seek work abroad, especially in the domestic and nursing sectors – has shot up from 412 in 2010 to 1,468 in 2016, an increase of 256 per cent in six years.

Given that the demand for foreign labour is likely to increase – in part because of rising standards of living, which imply that certain professions are no longer sought after by Maltese workers – it makes infinitely more sense to regularise the position of these people, rather than deporting them. 

Even within the economic argument, there is a moral dimension. Malta currently has an active policy to attract ‘high-worth’ individuals, which extends to the controversial practice of selling citizenship rather cheaply. At the same time, we are pursuing an economic policy that pushes the less privileged into living life in invisibility.

The contradiction is clearly visible, and clashes with the traditional world-view of a supposedly ‘left-wing’ government. By courting the super-rich, and treating the lowest strata of society as criminals, the government is sending out the message that human dignity is only appraised on the basis of money.

One expects a more humane approach, from a government that once promised social justice.