Symptoms of a failed system

In the aftermath of the chilling events of last Friday, many of the shortcomings identified in the International Commission of Jurists’ report were visibly at work behind the scenes.

Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna.
Cartoon for MaltaToday Midweek by Mark Scicluna.

Malta awoke last Saturday to the grisly news that a 32-year-old migrant from Mali had died, after what appeared to be a violent beating at the hands of AFM officers employed in the detention sector: a sector that now falls squarely within the PM's newly acquired portfolio.

To be fair, Gonzi has so far responded to this incident with the utmost seriousness... as evidenced by his decision to hold a long overdue meeting with the various NGOs involved in migration issues.

But it was his choice of judge to investigate the same case - Mr Justice Geoffrey Valenzia: a highly respected sitting judge, who not only has a reputation for being independent-minded, but who also enjoys broad respect on both sides of the political divide - that denoted a marked change in attitude towards such matters.

As prime minister of an EU member state, Lawrence Gonzi clearly could not afford to impart the impression of being in any way dismissive of the serious accusations now levelled at the AFM, for which he bears political responsibility. This may well explain the choice of a judge who is (when all is said and done) not exactly known for any habit of kowtowing to political power.

Equally revealing were the terms of reference chosen for the same inquiry: which has been tasked to overview Malta's detention policy as a whole - a far cry from to the vague and often perfunctory style of 'inquiry' we were used to previously.

Gonzi therefore deserves full credit for rising to this difficult occasion: especially considering that the portfolio only came to rest under his aegis just over a month ago, and following what can only be described as a bizarre turn of largely unexpected events.

But no matter how well he has so far handled circumstances, it remains a fact that the events of last weekend are themselves the direct result of a government policy that can only be associated with his own term as Prime Minister; and which his government has traditionally defended tooth and nail against criticism from even the highest-placed and most respected institutes in the field of human rights advocacy.

It is worth remembering that the so-called immigration 'crisis' - to use the unfortunate term which, alongside such loaded epithets as 'invasion' and 'plague', have characterized government ministers' rhetoric when talking about asylum issues - is a particularly recent phenomenon... traceable to the beginning of the millennium at the earliest.

Closing an eye at the first two, maybe three years under Eddie Fenech Adami, this also means that Gonzi himself has been at the helm of the country throughout the same period.

All existing immigration policies can therefore be traced directly to the present government's own door. Unlike other issues, Gonzi cannot point fingers at past mismanagement by Labour governments - though it is hardly auspicious that Labour, while rightly criticizing all sorts of other PN policies, has offered its full blanket support to the Nationalists even on the most controversial aspects of their immigration stances.

Yet it was the Gonzi administration - enjoying uncharacteristic levels of support from the Opposition - that insisted on retaining a policy of forced detention for as much as 12 months (18, in some cases) despite clear indications that this policy was simply not working. And it was the same administration which insisted on referring to the same issue only in terms of a calamity or a 'crisis'... and never as an 'opportunity', despite the clear and demonstrably economic benefits that migration inevitably brings with it.

Examples are many and various, but the one that stands out is arguably the most recent: when the International Commission of Jurists lambasted the Maltese government for doggedly refusing to acknowledge that migration is now a permanent feature of daily life, and should be treated as such.

In the aftermath of the chilling events of last Friday, many of the shortcomings identified in the ICJ's report were visibly at work behind the scenes. The lack of adequate access to medical services (evidenced also by the separate pull-out of Medecins Sans Frontier from detention centres some years earlier); the idea of constantly criminalizing migrants, even when these are gainfully employed, and when their circumstances can easily be normalized to the benefit of both migrant and the economy.... not to mention the conditions of detention itself; and above all, the sheer needlessness of such a draconian policy, which serves no other purpose than to maximize discomfort and stress for asylum seekers and AFM personnel alike, while failing to curb arrivals or lessen the pressures of migration in any meaningful way.

These are among the many, many issues that government has consistently ignored for the entire duration of Lawrence Gonzi's term of office, with consequences that can now only be described as both tragic and fatal. From this perspective, it is encouraging to see a belated (albeit welcome) change in attitude on government's part. One sincerely  hopes that this change will not prove a mere flash in the pan... but instead, the beginning of a long overdue root and branch reform of Malta's entire attitude to the immigration phenomenon.

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Malta's detention policy is a very essential tool to deter illegal (and mainly economic) migrants from the continued assault on this small, overpopulated country which also has a severe lack of resources if you ignore humans. Since it is not severe enough, it is not working as a good enough deterrent. A good percentage of these illegal and economic migrants only spend a few months under detention or none at all. These immigrants arrive here in an undocumented way which makes it easier for them to invent their circumstances (and country of origin) which will in turn make it easier for them to qualify for education, healthcare, social security handouts, sustenance and accommodation, all for free. It will also be next to impossible for the authorities to send them back to their country of origin. Detention for immigrants who enter other countries without documentation is practiced all over the world including in Israel where it was increased to 3 years last June and in Australia where the High Court has declared that it is constitutionally correct to detain illegal immigrants indefinitely. Australia has also sub-contracted other nations to detain would-be immigrants offshore, like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru whilst maintaining a detention facility of its own on Christmas Island. Those who do not like detention can avoid it by entering other countries in a proper and documented way which is done by travellers who do not have anything to hide and who prefer to do things in a legally accepted manner instead of aiming at abusing the country’s taxpayers.
avatar
Malta's detention policy is a very essential tool to deter illegal (and mainly economic) migrants from the continued assault on this small, overpopulated country which also has a severe lack of resources if you ignore humans. Since it is not severe enough, it is not working as a good enough deterrent. A good percentage of these illegal and economic migrants only spend a few months under detention or none at all. These immigrants arrive here in an undocumented way which makes it easier for them to invent their circumstances (and country of origin) which will in turn make it easier for them to qualify for education, healthcare, social security handouts, sustenance and accommodation, all for free. It will also be next to impossible for the authorities to send them back to their country of origin. Detention for immigrants who enter other countries without documentation is practiced all over the world including in Israel where it was increased to 3 years last June and in Australia where the High Court has declared that it is constitutionally correct to detain illegal immigrants indefinitely. Australia has also sub-contracted other nations to detain would-be immigrants offshore, like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru whilst maintaining a detention facility of its own on Christmas Island. Those who do not like detention can avoid it by entering other countries in a proper and documented way which is done by travellers who do not have anything to hide and who prefer to do things in a legally accepted manner instead of aiming at abusing the country’s taxpayers.
avatar
Malta's detention policy is a very essential tool to deter illegal (and mainly economic) migrants from the continued assault on this small, overpopulated country which also has a severe lack of resources if you ignore humans. Since it is not severe enough, it is not working as a good enough deterrent. A good percentage of these illegal and economic migrants only spend a few months under detention or none at all. These immigrants arrive here in an undocumented way which makes it easier for them to invent their circumstances (and country of origin) which will in turn make it easier for them to qualify for education, healthcare, social security handouts, sustenance and accommodation, all for free. It will also be next to impossible for the authorities to send them back to their country of origin. Detention for immigrants who enter other countries without documentation is practiced all over the world including in Israel where it was increased to 3 years last June and in Australia where the High Court has declared that it is constitutionally correct to detain illegal immigrants indefinitely. Australia has also sub-contracted other nations to detain would-be immigrants offshore, like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Nauru whilst maintaining a detention facility of its own on Christmas Island. Those who do not like detention can avoid it by entering other countries in a proper and documented way which is done by travellers who do not have anything to hide and who prefer to do things in a legally accepted manner instead of aiming at abusing the country’s taxpayers.