Change is not an option | Edward Zammit Lewis

The 'us' versus 'them' siege mentality must be rejected once and for all through strict enforcement of the law and all other available tools. I am proud to form part of a government that is once again leading

Before the law, all are equal, and those who break the law must be brought to justice. In this regard, I must laud the expeditious way in which over 100 alleged aggressors were arraigned before the Courts
Before the law, all are equal, and those who break the law must be brought to justice. In this regard, I must laud the expeditious way in which over 100 alleged aggressors were arraigned before the Courts

On a regular, if not daily, basis I meet people who express their concerns about immigration and integration, be it about jobs for their children or grandchildren, security in their neighbourhood, or else the stresses on the country’s infrastructure. I also meet others who embrace migration as a driver for economic growth.

It is normal and healthy for citizens to engage in debate about one of the top issues not only here, but also at the European and the global level. Indeed, such debate should be encouraged in a democratic society, and politicians should consider the divergent views and provide the answers that citizens require.

Everyone has to some degree discussed or come across, whether in person or on social media, contrasting views on the recent riot at the Ħal Far open centre. Again, this is normal and healthy. How could such a happening be ignored? Although there have been similar events in the past, particularly in closed centres, the “Tent Village” riot impacted innocent open centre residents and staff, as well as Maltese society as a whole. This as a result of the considerable number of participants and the extent of the violence and the damage.

Before the law, all are equal, and those who break the law must be brought to justice. In this regard, I must laud the expeditious way in which over 100 alleged aggressors were arraigned before the Courts. I believe that even the migrant community felt that the perpetrators committed an injustice towards their fellow migrants, because unfortunately the bad name tends to stick to everyone and this criminal act fuelled further hate towards them.

The riot exposed a very dark side to the debate about immigration and integration. Social media in particular is flooded with disturbing violent and illegal hate speech, which is very clearly racist and xenophobic in nature. There have been in the past other manifestations of hate speech online, but the current volume and content being directed at refugees and migrants raise alarm bells because it is not unknown for hate speech to have deadly consequences. Tragically we have recently witnessed an allegedly racially motivated murder, and the worst thing we can do in the face of the current spike in hate speech is do or say nothing. It is true that change does not happen overnight, but in this case no change is not an option.

The law is clear. Hate speech is illegal under Maltese criminal law, and is punishable by up to 18 months in prison, along with hefty fines stretching into thousands of euro. The two Equality Bills which my Ministry will be piloting through Parliament will make hate crime and hate speech also a form of discrimination. With the aim of eliminating xenophobia, this Act extends protection against incitement to racial hatred and other forms of hate speech, whether against foreigners or any other group, through the widening of the list of protected characteristics.

As a result, the basis upon which incitement to racial hatred is criminalised under criminal law will also be widened to provide protection to every person or group against hate crimes.

In contrast to the populist and almost xenophobic statements coming from the Opposition, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat spoke of the path of integration as the one road to take, as a country. Two years ago my Ministry launched Malta’s first integration policy and it is now bearing fruit. Very good results have been achieved in terms of implementation, but on the other hand I have no qualms stating that much more needs to be done. This recent event and the Prime Minister’s leadership in the aftermath have made it clear that the second integration framework, for which we will soon be launching a public consultation, must necessarily address racism and xenophobia amongst its topmost priorities.

Specifically, my Ministry will work on and deliver a national action plan to combat racism and xenophobia. Such a tool will address the educational and cultural changes which, hand in hand with legislation and policy, are required to stamp out this scourge. We will ensure that all stakeholders, including migrant communities, are brought on board to leverage all experience and expertise available to achieve the best results.

Just as an example of the educational and cultural challenges in our efforts to address racism and xenophobia, I will mention a certain cleric’s warped ideas on patriotism, or dare I say nationalism, evoking nostalgia for a form of love for one’s country that is more suited to the time of the Great Siege, shamelessly using that religious credibility and imagery that still weighs significantly in this country. Time is ripe to reclaim patriotism from the far-right and reframe it in the progressive terms that are required today. For they represent extreme nationalism, and not patriotism. One might feel that all this is far removed from the hate speech currently on display, but it is not. Many of the posts directly or indirectly refer to our country, our religion, our culture, and so on.

Worryingly, the discourse about patriotism on the right evokes a conspiracy theory generally called the “great replacement” theory. Rosa Schwartzburg has written that this theory can generally be understood as two core beliefs. “The first is that 'western' identity is under siege by massive waves of immigration from non-European/non-white countries, resulting in a replacement of white European individuals via demographics. The second is that replacement has been orchestrated by a shadowy group as part of their grand plan to rule the world – which they will do by creating a completely racially homogenous society.” Again, many posts reflect a familiarity with such racist theories that cannot and must not go unchallenged.

I will conclude where I started. The vast majority of us have no issue with the intercultural, cosmopolitan society we have become. We can see that we are better off as a country that embraces strength in diversity. The “us” versus “them” siege mentality must be rejected once and for all through strict enforcement of the law and all other available tools. I am proud to form part of a government that is once again leading.

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