An act of humiliation and violence

The only way the Marsa raid can possibly be described as ‘not a case of racial profiling’ is when it is conducted indiscriminately on all persons, irrespective of skin colour, country of origin, residence and so on

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

Scenes witnessed in Marsa this week were uncomfortably reminiscent of apartheid-era South Africa. 

On Wednesday, the police conducted checks “to verify documents of migrants” on the main Marsa thoroughfare. A total of 84 people, all of African origin, were rounded up and taken to the police depot, where they had to show documentation to verify that they were in Malta legally. 

All persons checked were found to be carrying the correct documents and were released.

Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Abela later denied that this was an act of racial profiling by the police; but it is difficult to view it from any other perspective. 

This was the first raid of its kind targeting ‘illegal immigrants’. It cannot escape notice that it targeted only one racial demographic, among the many categories of person who might fit that description.

If the intention really was to identify illegal immigrants, why limit the exercise only to Africans in the vicinity of an open centre? Will the police also go to Ta `Xbiex and carry out a spot checks on betting company employees to ascertain that they have all the necessary papers in place? Will the authorities use the same force to check whether construction and services companies which employ third-country nationals are observing labour laws? 

And if the police are so concerned with undocumented migrants looking or work at the Marsa roundabout... why not extend that concern also to the employers who drive to Marsa specifically to hire workers illegally? 

The only way such an exercise can possibly be described as ‘not a case of racial profiling’ is when it is conducted indiscriminately on all persons, irrespective of skin colour, country of origin, residence, etc. The police raid last Wednesday, however, singled out people precisely on the basis of their race and colour. It can only be described as an ugly act of violence and humiliation by the State.

As such, it was also typical of Labour’s ever awkward, ever ambivalent position vis-a-vis third country nationals (TCNs) and people seeking asylum. Prime Minister Joseph Muscat extols an economy that is also dependent on manual and low-skilled labourers from outside the EU; but at the same time, he doesn’t mind making a show of force with the most vulnerable of workers in Malta.

Moreover, the timing was at best suspicious. Now that the starter pistol for the next election has been fired, both sides of the political spectrum seem keen to court a vocal anti-immigration lobby that their own policies have helped to create.

Just a week before this surprise raid, Nationalist Party deputy leader Beppe Fenech Adami said that politicians should “assume some blame for causing many Marsa residents to live in fear”, and for what he called the level of lawlessness from a sudden influx “of hundreds, if not thousands, of migrants in their mix, without both sides having been prepared for such a forced integration.”

It is clear that both Fenech Adami’s exaggerated remark and the police raid represent active attempts at capitalising on public anti-immigration sentiment. The reality is that the influx is now at its lowest ebb; and that Marsa is by no means the ‘crime capital’ it is often painted out to be. 

The highest number of reported crimes in 2016 was in the affluent St Julian’s area, with 2,369 crimes: five times the national average. St Paul’s Bay had the second highest rate of reported crimes (1,498), followed by Sliema (1,440), Msida (553) Birkirkara (492) Qormi (490), Mosta (450), Paola (438)... and only then, Marsa (424).

Why, therefore, doesn’t Fenech Adami address his crime concerns where they are most needed? As with the police raid, the answer is political in nature. It is easier and politically more advantageous to single out vulnerable targets.

Meanwhile it is unclear how initiatives such a Wednesday’s raid are supposed to address the ‘climate of fear’ in such places. It is precisely this policy of marginalising communities that causes such fear: both within the communities, and among the resident communities who only ever see such people in handcuffs or being rounded up by the police.

The raid sparked precisely this concern among human rights NGOs, including Aditus, which described the measure as one that promoted “a racialised approach further fuelling exclusion, marginalisation and division”.

Aditus, an NGO that guarantees legal rights for asylum seekers and refugees, said that the state had every right to ensure respect of its immigration rule, “but the climate intentionally created over the past months is one of intimidation, fear and insecurity”.

Ultimately, this continued policy of pushing people underground is also a waste of national resources. Government would be better advised to concentrate its efforts on an integration policy. All migrants should be allowed to work and live regularly. Those who have lived in Malta for a number of years and worked legally, paid taxes, paid NI, have an official domicile, etc., should be granted permanent residency. This would allow them to lead a normal life, whilst also recognising the reality of a changing labour force.

As things stand, however, we are first creating ghettoes populated by social outcasts... then punishing them for not fitting in.