They are children, not criminals

Malta cannot continue to flout international citizenship laws - a review of the entire process is long overdue

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Opposition MP Paula Mifsud Bonnici’s call to grant Maltese citizenship to all children born in Malta is a welcome initiative. Indeed, it marks the second time such a plea has been raised in Malta’s Parliament: after Marlene Farrugia also reminded the government of its obligations towards stateless children.

It is surprising that such a basic call to human decency should continue to go unheeded... even after Prime Minister Joseph Muscat himself made an impassioned plea not to discriminate against migrant children in a recent party event in St Paul’s Bay.

On that occasion, the Prime Minister asked: “If I cannot take a call and it’s up to you to decide whether to save people off a sinking ship, what would you do? Do you want that child to drown?”

He added that: “We want to make of Malta a cosmopolitan country, where families have the best quality of life and where we attract so much investment and work, that we start improving the lives of other people from other countries too.”

These are fine words, yet the reality of the situation faced by children in such situations paints a different picture. Dr Ruth Farrugia, of the President’s Forum for the Wellbeing of Society, recently pointed out that one in four people currently seeking protection from harm and persecution in the EU are children. Many of these, she said ‘are slipping through the cracks without much concern from authorities on where they had ended up.’

“Sometimes the attitude has been ‘oh, we’ve got one less child to worry about’; it’s as if we don’t want to dwell on how they may have landed in criminal hands,” Farrugia said.

She added that these children were falling prey to trafficking, sex slavery and exploitation, which violated Europe’s fundamental rights and the rights of the child.

More than half the children seeking protection in the EU are under the age of 14 and they would have embarked on long, treacherous journeys to eventually end up in countries that are unprepared and often unwilling to take responsibility for their protection and to ensure their rights are respected.

Apart from children who arrive as undocumented aliens, there is the additional question of children born in Malta to asylum-seeking parents.  In the past, every person born in Malta was automatically entitled to Maltese citizenship. However, since 2001, that law only applies to people born before 1 August, 1989. Those born after that date are now only entitled to Maltese citizenship if their father or mother is a current or former Maltese citizen, or was born in Malta. 

This is unacceptable, and quite possibly a violation of the Charter of Human Rights. Since many asylum seekers are undocumented, it effectively means that their children are left stateless – with their documentation only stating their names, place of birth and protection status, but not their nationality. 

It is technically a human rights violation to render people stateless. This is usually interpreted to mean that no State can actively strip an individual of citizenship.

Nor is this the only potential human rights violation. Three years ago, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat made a commitment to end the detention of unaccompanied child migrants. Yet Malta detains all age-disputed cases pending an age determination process; and as a result children below the age of 18 may be detained for weeks or months, despite alternative available facilities. 

During detention, children are held in the same compound as adults, without any consideration for their young age, and with no access to school.  

Under international and European standards, unaccompanied children should never be detained for reasons related to irregular entry; and pending age determination the person claiming to be a child should be treated as such until the determination is complete. 

It is unconscionable how Malta continues to defy European law on such a basic matter; and not only gets away with it, but even pontificates on the global stage about the importance of protecting children.

The truth is that we are failing these children miserably on all levels; and to compound our failure we are also making it as easy as possible for the world’s richest tycoons to simply buy their Maltese nationality for one million euros through the IIP scheme. 

The injustice is palpable, and speaks volumes about our country’s actual priorities in the broader scheme of things. There should be a clear, transparent procedure for anyone to apply for citizenship through naturalisation... not just millionaires with no connection to Malta at all.

In most EU countries, people are given citizenship after five or six years of residence. In Malta, people have been known to live and work for up to 20 years before being granted citizenship: despite having learnt the language, integrated, worked legally, paid taxes, and in some cases given immense cultural contributions to the country.

Malta cannot continue to flout international citizenship laws in this way. A review of the entire process is long overdue.