Mistreating migrants

Treating migrants shoddily will neither honour Malta nor help to avoid - let alone solve -the problems created by the migration phenomenon across the Mediterranean

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg
The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg

The story of a 17-year-old Ivorian migrant who spent 225 days in detention in Malta, including a spell of confinement inside a one-windowed container, and who was awarded €25,000 in damages by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) was in the news this past week.

The minor, born in September 2004, arrived in Malta with an all-male group of boat persons in November 2021 after spending 10 days at sea. The group was rescued and taken to Hal Far Initial Reception Centre, where he was detained in quarantine until given clearance by Maltese medical authorities.

The French-speaking teenager claimed he was given no explanation, in a language he could understand, as to why he was being detained.

Lawyers from the Aditus Foundation and JRS Malta filed a breach of rights case before the European Court claiming that detention conditions in various immigration centres amounted to inhuman or degrading treatment. They claimed that the two-month-long restriction of movement order also amounted to unlawful and arbitrary detention and the constitutional proceedings before the Maltese courts did not amount to an effective remedy.

When delivering judgment, the ECHR declared that the practice of detaining migrants ‘for health reasons’ under order by the Superintendent for Public Health was illegal. The court awarded the applicant €25,000 in non-pecuniary damages together with an additional €3000 to cover costs and taxes.

To my mind, the experience of this migrant who reached his 18th birthday in Malta shows two things: the shabby way that migrants - such as this man - are treated and the unprofessional way that the case at the ECHR was tackled by the Maltese legal authorities.

The Attorney General’s office might have many cases to defend in its remit but putting such a case at the back of its pecking order and risking Malta being shamed by the ECHR is unacceptable. I am not saying that the young man should not have won his case. But I feel that the defence of the Maltese government’s actions was inadequate, if not pitiful.

The story also shows that all those who come into contact with such migrants - in whatever rung of the power ladder - should be taught how to handle them without breaking the law and flaunting the rights to which every human is fully entitled.

I seriously doubt whether those coming into contact with migrants receive any training and education on human rights. I find it flabbergasting that the people running the detention centres apparently did not realise that the migrant spoke French and hence, did not produce a French speaking person to communicate better with him. If they knew he spoke French, and could not care less, then their actions are even more damning.

The current government’s stance about migration by people on boats is to avoid bringing any of them to Malta with the consequence that they would have to be ‘welcomed’ by the Maltese authorities. At first glance, this seems somewhat acceptable, but the idea is being stretched and taken to its extreme with Malta manifestly appearing to be a heartless nation endangering people at sea on shoddy boats.

Perhaps many Maltese are heartless where such migrants are concerned. But the Government of the day should show mercy and magnanimity.

The Mediterranean will never be ‘free’ of people crossing it as part of their quest to a better life. Malta will always remain an island in the middle of the Mediterranean and its destiny resulting from its geographical location cannot be ignored, whatever anybody says.

Treating migrants shoddily will neither honour Malta nor help to avoid - let alone solve -the problems created by the migration phenomenon across the Mediterranean.

Recycling of old buildings

According to a report in last week’s The Sunday Times, Sean Buhagiar, the artistic director of Teatru Malta is convinced that the building of Mount Carmel - the old but still running psychiatric hospital - is the perfect place that can be transformed into a National Theatre. He thinks the space offers ‘a unique philosophical opportunity to embody the connection between art and psychology’.

He reckons that a refurbished version of the current run-down building would accommodate not just a stage, but also ‘several spaces for professional performers to rehearse, intimate theatres for local gigs and a large theatre complete with expansive backstage spaces and wings.’

I do not know whether this idea makes sense as I have never visited this hospital, but I am sure that it is opportune to discuss what the existing building will be used for when the psychiatric hospital is replaced by the one that is going to be built near Mater Dei.

Unfortunately, very often in Malta, new facilities are built without anyone giving any importance to the use of the original building housing the facilities that are to be moved to a new building. This is tragic.

This tragedy, in fact, happened in St Luke’s Hospital with the Gonzi administration rightly boasting about Mater Dei but not knowing what to do with the vacated St Luke’s Hospital.

It was then run down and it is even worse today. Over the years, this hospital has been vandalised with some areas being stripped of piping and wiring. I do not know whether this vandalism occurred when the government was ‘running’ the empty hospital or when Vitals and subsequently Stewards took over this responsibility. Perhaps it just happened over the years. Abandoning any building naturally leads to a run-down derelict site, unless a new use is given to it as quickly as possible.

The truth is that St Luke’s today is in a much worse situation than it was when it was vacated and Mater Dei was inaugurated as a general hospital.

Knowing what the Mount Carmel complex is going to be used for when its current use is transferred somewhere else makes a lot of sense.

Mount Carmel is today a very shabby place. I am told that it is in very bad shape, much worse than St Luke’s was when Malta’s main hospital facilities moved to Mater Dei.

I could name several other buildings that have not been given a new lease of life through a new use and instead lie abandoned and vandalised.

This has to be avoided in the case of Mount Carmel.