Crackdowns should be on criminals, not victims

Surely, the legality of those tenants’ status should not have been the only crime for the police to investigate in that case. What about the legality of the people charging those tenants rent, for accommodation fit only for animals?

In July, the Rapid Intervention Unit and the Administrative Law Enforcement Section conducted a raid in Marsa, where it was revealed that over 100 people – all of African origin – were paying €100 a month to live in squalid conditions in stables.

And on Monday this week, another group of over 100 people – all foreigners of various nationalities, including EU citizens - were evicted from a rundown hotel in a police raid in St Paul’s Bay.

Apart from offering us all a glimpse of Malta’s underbelly of poverty – i.e., an entire subculture of mostly foreign, largely desperate people, who eke out some form of living off the scraps that fall from the ‘economic boom’ table – both incidents raise serious questions about Malta’s approach to this phenomenon.

In the Marsa case, a simple calculation reveals that the property owner was making E10,000 a month, from stables that are clearly not fit for human occupation. Planning Authority Chairman Johann Buttigieg confirmed on Facebook that the operation was carried out on his orders, describing the living conditions of the migrants as “inhumane”.

But the police also confirmed that the immigrants were living in these inadequate quarters illegally… and it seems that this consideration was the sole driving force behind the entire raid.

Surely, the legality of those tenants’ status should not have been the only crime for the police to investigate in that case. What about the legality of the people charging those tenants rent, for accommodation fit only for animals?

Rental agreements are, after all, a two-way affair. And it is the landlord, not the tenant, who provides the property, and is responsible for its maintenance.

And in this week’s St Paul’s Bay intervention, the police were responding to complaints about a ‘rat infestation’ inside the hotel… only for one police officer to be bitten by a tick during the raid itself, needing treatment by the medical team on site.

This gives an indication of the conditions these people were paying €200 a month to live in: sometimes crammed five to a hotel room.

In both cases, the disgraceful standards of accommodation can arguably amount to a breach of human rights: even at a glance, it can be seen as an affront to human dignity.

But once again, it transpired that some – though not all - of the evicted tenants were in Malta illegally; so immigration police and members of the Rapid Intervention Unit swooped down on the former Paloma Hotel early on Monday morning: where they were seen checking immigration documents, and asking tenants whether they had residence permits. A number of people were taken away in police vans.

This is worrying, because it is not at all clear whether the law was broken in all such rental agreement cases. Some of those residents did have the required residence documentation to live and work in Malta; and they had agreed to pay rent for those rooms.

Even those residents who were not arrested, have still ended up in the street without their possessions, which have been left in rooms that they are not being allowed to enter. One can understand the frustration of a young Italian man, who told the press that: “I have been to UK, France, Spain, Germany - all from Italy, and I haven’t ever been arrested at five in the morning for just renting a room.”

Once again, however, if the condition of their accommodation was substandard, that is surely the responsibility of the property owner who charged them rent in the first place… not of the people who are mostly forced by circumstance to accept such appalling conditions, or sleep in the street.

Yet while it is clear that any wrongdoing can only be attributed to abusive landlords, in both those incidents the police conducted mass arrests of their victims, without seeming to take any action at all against the people who had abused of their vulnerability.

According to press reports, the police in the St Pauls Bay raid were even “accompanied by a man who tenants say collected rent from them.” To date, it is not even clear who owns the building… and therefore, who was the ultimate beneficiary of the arrangement.

It is hard to understand why the victims of this crime would have been the only ones arrested, while those who extorted them were not even called in for questioning. Clearly, the motivation behind these raids does not seem to have been to end the abuse… but rather, to punish those who have no option but to seek the cheapest – and most squalid – accommodation possible.

Meanwhile, the police’s reluctance to take action against offenders may even worsen the plight of victims: if no action is ever taken against property-owners in such cases, landlords may even call the police themselves to get rid of unwanted tenants… a tactic that is apparently well-known also to abusive employers: who knowingly employ workers illegally, then report them to police to avoid having to pay their salaries.

This is the sort of behaviour that Malta should really be clamping down on: the criminals who exploit the vulnerable for profit… not the vulnerable victims themselves.