Populist tonic for the summer malaise

Now that the dust has settled, after the unruly scenes witnessed in Ħamrun last week, it may be worth putting the entire incident into some perspective...

Now that the dust has settled, after the unruly scenes witnessed in Ħamrun last week, it may be worth putting the entire incident into some perspective. 

Certainly, the sight of over 20 people – regardless of their nationality – coming to blows on a busy, urban street, is not something people can lightly afford to ignore. Leaving aside the danger that such incidents inevitably represent to the wider community: this street-fight also seems to expose the fact that our community police officers (through no real fault of their own) are simply ill-equipped to deal with such emergencies. 

If nothing else, the entire event should have served as a springboard to a serious discussion on Malta’s law enforcement capabilities. Clearly, it is the lack of policing in communities where there is a high rate of non-cohesive, foreign residents, that is the real problem. Moreover, there is also a clear need for better integration policies, that allow foreigners – like those tax-paying business owners who have made Ħamrun their home – to become part of the community, rather than just being treated either as cheap labour or rent-payers. 

Nonetheless, there is a limit to how far this discussion can go, before it takes a turn for the farcical.  As usual, the political response seems to have taken the form of a knee-jerk reaction – typical of the ‘silly season’ - focusing only on the nationality of the protagonists themselves: while conveniently ignoring similar scenes of incivility between Maltese nationals, often as not during village feasts (as evidenced by a viral TikTok video, showing bloodied noses from a festa brawl). 

It is ironic, for instance, that Joe Giglio – the PN’s spokesperson for home affairs; but also a lawyer who has defended clients against deportation – would call for the ‘immediate deportation’ of ‘foreigners who break the law’. 

The operative word there is ‘immediate’: for as Giglio himself knows only too well, deportation is already an option that can be (and often is) used in such cases. Last year, for instance, Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri even boasted that “[Malta] deported a record number of people who didn’t have a right for asylum” in 2019. Camilleri did not provide any figures; but we know, from previous statistics, that as many as 560 foreign nationals were deported, to 30 different countries, in 2018. Clearly, then, the issue is not that Malta lacks the capability (or even the political will) to resort to deportation, in such cases. What seems to be irking Joe Giglio is the fact that these deportations do not take place ‘immediately’ enough. Yet Giglio, of all people, should know that deportation is not a straightforward process; it can be challenged, especially if it breaches international law, or the defendants’ protection from torture, or inhumane or degrading treatment, once returned to a country of origin. 

This is as it should be: deportation – like all other legal procedures – is also subject to the same system of checks and balances that underpins all other aspects of criminal law. 

It would be regrettable, therefore, to have to conclude that Joe Giglio is actually advocating the removal of such checks and balances from our criminal justice system: so as to dispense ‘summary justice’, without any recourse to an appeal, or a defence of any kind.  

Added to his other proposal – i.e., a call to enlist the Armed Forces, in local law-enforcement efforts – this can only reinforce the notion that the Nationalist Party is once again lurching towards the extreme right. 

To be fair, however, PN leader Bernard Grech evidently had a more nuanced outlook on the matter, given his slightly divergent views. It is arguable that he is not keen to see the PN go, yet again, down the route that Adrian Delia took it during the 2019 European elections: when it complained of ‘population bombs’ and ‘foreign workers’. 

However, this memo clearly hasn’t reached the offices of Joe Giglio and Darren Carabott; a fact which, once again, exposes ‘divisions’ – albeit of a policy nature, this time – within Malta’s main Opposition party. 

This is problematic for the PN, for other reasons. It also gives fodder to Prime Minister Robert Abela: who now uses the PN’s calls for deportation, to justify his own refusal to offer safe haven to rescued asylum seekers; not to mention his equally ‘extremist’ policy of simply stranding them, illegally, aboard Captain Morgan boats, during the summer of 2020.  

When Abela sees the PN jumping on the far-right’s bandwagon, he always weaponises it to justify his own government’s heavy-handed reactions: and this does no favours to the PN, or to the country as a whole. 

The PN needs to opt for a more humanitarian understanding of the problems faced by port-towns like Ħamrun: where cheap rent makes it attractive to lower-skilled or lower-paid migrants.  

Ħamrun deserves both the support of government integration efforts, as well as better policing, to keep its streets and residents safe. 

So rather than simply adopt knee-jerk, populist positions, the PN would do well to analyse the problems faced by residents better, offering a more humane alternative to the do-nothing approach Labour has employed.