Courage demands action, not just words

Keeping a human being behind bars under continuous surveillance gives the impression that asylum seekers are some sort of invader.

Joseph Muscat on Freedom Day
Joseph Muscat on Freedom Day

Joseph Muscat’s bold speech to mark Freedom Day on Sunday, came like a bolt from the blue.

Talking on child migrants in detention, Muscat said, “Children have no place being detained as though they are criminals.”

In the following hours, social network sites were flooded with words of praise for what was described by many as a “courageous” and “welcome” speech.

Muscat’s vow is no groundbreaking move. According to government policy vulnerable persons are excluded from detention and should be accommodated in open centres, yet many minors are detained for months. Undoubtedly, such words gave me comfort, but I must also admit that I was left slightly perplexed.

Is this the same Muscat who in 2009 suggested the suspension of the Geneva Convention in extremis? Is he the same person who three years ago defended Italy’s decision to repatriate hundreds of migrants illegally? Is this the same prime minister who last year attempted to push back migrants to Libya without granting them a right to apply for asylum?

While any move to free child migrants from detention would be a huge step forward, Muscat’s words should be put into context. Nine months ago, Muscat’s plans to push back around 50 migrants were only thwarted by a last-minute intervention by human rights lawyers who petitioned the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

Although he faced a mini-revolt by the few leftists in his party and alienated a small sector of the electorate, Muscat ploughed ahead with his campaign to paint Malta as a victim of an EU that continues to drag its feet in dealing with migration from Africa.

Indeed the EU’s migration and asylum policies need a major overhaul, however the government’s actions on migration so far have been bigoted and inhumane.

I fear the Labour administration is guided by marketing principles, rather than by a genuinely progressive agenda. Rightfully, in recent years Muscat advocated LGBTI rights, however rights of migrants were never put on the same level. It seemed that the right for gay couples to have their relationships regulated by law was above the right of a migrant to be treated with dignity by the State.

Prior to the March 2013 election, Labour made it very clear that LGBTI couples should be granted the same rights as heterosexual couples and following its election it made the introduction of civil unions one of its priorities.

In his Freedom Day speech, Muscat highlighted the need to fight prejudice and accept different forms of families. This message was coherent with Muscat’s belief that LGBTI persons should enjoy the same rights as anybody else, which over the years evolved silently, earning him respect and credibility from the gay community and the socially liberal electorate.

In contrast, never did I hear a word on freeing detained child migrants, nor was it mentioned in Labour’s electoral programme. So why this sudden change of heart?

When Muscat spoke of giving people “the chance of integration” in manageable and small numbers I was puzzled to say the least. How can I believe him when only a few months ago he was prepared to send back migrants to a country with a poor human rights record and without granting them the right to apply for asylum?

At best it sounds like a second-hand idea, at worst a ploy to woo back liberals who were deeply offended by government’s plans to illegally push back migrants.

Muscat said child migrants should no longer be detained and in what seems like Marie Louise Coleiro Preca’s last act before becoming President, this could be implemented imminently.

However, if Muscat feels strongly about the matter, why did we have to wait so long to free child migrants from detention centres which are unfit for animals?

And if children should not be locked up like criminals, does it follow then that their parents are not criminals either – but why are these people any more deserving of freedom than the other asylum seekers?

While acknowledging that detention, which could last 18 months or more (illegally), should not be used as an excuse to deny migrants their basic rights, Muscat described his government’s asylum policy, which he inherited from previous Nationalist administrations, as a “deterrent.” Keeping a human being behind bars under continuous surveillance is tantamount to denying them their rights and gives the impression that asylum seekers are some sort of invading vandals. 

Denying human beings their freedom for fleeing violence and misery and seeking a better life scars migrants for life… no wonder they revolt. At times I wonder why they do not revolt more often. There is absolutely no reason why migrants should be detained for months on end while their asylum applications are being processed.

If Muscat really believes in what he said he should make it a priority of his to integrate migrants by firstly changing the detention policy, immediately and not gradually.

Above all, his government must provide protection to migrants who are mere pawns for big and often obscure businesses. Last week’s study published by the UNHCR and Aditus Foundation showed that “few refugees were aware of labour rights, and many confirmed that they did not report substandard conditions and abuse for fear of losing their jobs.” The report also said that although more than half of the refugees interviewed were in employment, women found it harder to get a job and many migrants were “working for extremely low wages, particularly when their work was unregistered.”

This can only be addressed by a government-driven educational campaign among migrants living in Malta and by ensuring that employers, including companies which are awarded government contracts, respect the law and every worker, irrespective of race, colour or creed, is employed legally. If not it would only be aiding big businesses in their nefarious race to the bottom.

In order to regain a shade of credibility, government must reform the educational and housing systems and send a strong message that migrants have equal rights and are not be feared but are part and parcel of today’s economic, social and cultural realities.