‘Law and order’ begins at home

Marsa is the clearest example of ‘ghettoisation’, whereby entire communities of non-native residents have been confined to certain areas

Cartoon by Mikiel Galea
Cartoon by Mikiel Galea

It is perhaps no surprise that the government would announce measures to beef up national security, and describe itself as a ‘law and order’ movement: given that 2017 was in many ways dominated by concerns at a perceived increase in criminality and lawlessness.

Such concerns predated the October 16 murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia... though this naturally exacerbated public perceptions of a collapse in our institutional approach to crime-fighting. Whether or not these perceptions are justified, it would be futile to deny that Malta feels less safe than it used to be. Various surveys have been indicating a rising concern with public safety, long before the issue was recently catapulted to the top of the national agenda. And certain towns and areas were already considered crime ‘hotspots’, years before Malta’s non-resident population started growing exponentially.

Traditionally places like St Julian’s and Sliema have always taken the top spot for property crime and other misdemeanours, precisely because these are busy commercial and entertainment areas, and an ageing population that creates opportunities for theft. Paceville in particular is also Malta’s main entertainment Mecca, and as such is susceptible to all the petty (and sometimes serious) crime one associates with such areas: including, but not limited to, street violence.

In recent years Malta has begun to experience a newer phenomenon: ‘ghettoisation’, whereby entire communities of non-native residents have been confined to certain areas... Marsa, the former site of the Open Centre for migrants, being the clearest example.

But news that the government intends deploying army personnel to patrol the streets in such areas, together with the police, is unsurprising for another reason. While undeniably a response to a genuine street-level concern, this initiative also smacks heavily of political opportunism. In a sense, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat may even be conditioned by the public posturing of Opposition leader Adrian Delia: who has repeatedly stressed ‘security issues’ as a primary cause for concern, while also appealing to the (generally conservative) ‘Kattolici u Latini’ motif.

Both Delia and Muscat seem to be pandering to overtly populist forces here. Regardless of what one makes of the initiative itself, the news should therefore be greeted with caution.

For some time now, the government has treated places like Marsa, which houses a reception centre for asylum seekers and other down-and-out migrants, as an opportunity to shore up flagging support by applying typically ‘strong-arm’ law-and-order methods. Police swoops specifically designed to make a show of force, by requesting identification from asylum seekers in Marsa, were a clear act of racial profiling.

 The Prime Minister now wants to make another show in his newfound guise as ‘police minister’: by deploying army personnel in Marsa, and spreading the effort to places like Qawra, Birzebbugia and even Hamrun. The implication is clear. Muscat wants to place a heightened sense of ‘alert’ in places where African migrants tend to settle, even where they have places of business.

In some cases, the allure of places like Qawra and its environs attracts generally low-skilled labour from non-EU countries because of its cheaper rents. And again, the implication is clear: place heightened security in places with a high concentration of foreign residents.

The question that arises is whether this response actually addresses the underlying causes of popular concern. There can be no discounting the effects of community bonds that suffer when towns buckle under the pressure of population changes. The lack of integration policies does the Maltese no favours, either: it is, in fact, a problem in itself that we seem incapable of welcoming foreign residents into a community that desires them to be part of the ‘Maltese’ fabric. By treating migrants only as simple solutions for labour shortages, or mere tenants, we keep weakening the community bond. We must go beyond being a simple rent-seeking country: which, after first welcoming new migrants to ‘build the railway’, then insists they are policed into some implied submission.

Moreover, there is the added irony that the Labour ‘public safety’ government has refused to send in the commandoes to save its own administration from the ills of kleptocracy. It is not unreasonable to enquire why Muscat’s government should insist on ‘law and order’ from everyone else, while apparently exempting itself from all scrutiny.

Shouldn’t the government first accept to have the Panama Papers investigated in full by the economic crimes unit, and see that anyone responsible for tax avoidance  ­– or even money laundering – be investigated, and if necessary charged in court? Or should it demand full legal compliance from the public, while sidestepping its own responsibilities in the eyes of the law?

This is ultimately what the rule of law is all about: a guarantee that the law applies equally to everyone... including (if not especially) the powers that be. It is also the overriding principle by which public safety must be guaranteed. Safeguarding the law in its every aspect, also involves being unimpeachable in one’s application of legal processes. It is not simply a question of applying military tactics in those areas where the most vulnerable and disenfranchised live. Otherwise, this ‘law and order’ approach can only come across as the tactics of a schoolyard bully.