An explosive powder-keg that must be defused

Sunday’s riot may therefore be a stark reminder that the social realities we have swept under the carpet are still there, and show no signs of abating

The riot that broke out at the Hal Far open centre on Sunday cannot be viewed in isolation.

Ever since August 2005 – when riot police forcibly broke up a demonstration at the same compound – there have been sporadic reports of violent incidents (some more serious than others) within Malta’s closed and open centres alike.

In May 2011, for instance, some 200 detainees had similarly rioted over the quality of the food; in January 2009, some 300 Somalis protested against their detention, and three days later another protest was staged at the same detention centre; in March 2008, a similar protest led to a clash between 13 migrants and officials; and in 2005, 27 illegal immigrants were beaten during a peaceful protest.

The sheer regularity of these analogous events had prompted the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) to express concern about the recurrence of riots by asylum seekers. CERD’s concluding observations called on the local authorities to take appropriate measures to improve conditions of detention, and to “pursue the implementation of the recommendations made in the Depasquale report on events occurred in the detention centre Safi Barracks, in 2005.”

Nonetheless, there has been an apparent lull since the termination of Malta’s previous policy of blanket, indefinite detention for all asylum seekers. For some time now, the situation inside the open centres - which usually house migrants still awaiting the resolution of their asylum claims, as well as failed asylum seekers who have not been deported - has gone unnoticed.

Unfortunately, however, this does not mean that the problems of yesteryear have been solved. On the contrary, it may be an indication that the media may have lost interest in the issue; perhaps unsurprisingly, given the sheer repetitiveness of the typical news cycle concerning immigration.

Sunday’s riot may therefore be a stark reminder that the social realities we have swept under the carpet are still there, and show no signs of abating.

It also raises questions concerning government’s immigration policies as a whole. In the past, the overwhelming cause of frequent violent incidents was overcrowding. Today, reports have it that some of the mobile housing units that should be housing a maximum of six people, were taking in nine. Complaints about the quality of food still persist; and while the situation has certainly improved since 2005, the fact remains that failed (or pending) asylum seekers are still caught up in a legal limbo… unable to obtain humanitarian protection, and – in many cases – unable to be deported, through lack of co-operation from the country of origin.

It would, of course, be facile to expect instant solutions to such a complex problem. But, when assessing the aftermath of incidents such as Sunday’s riots, one cannot ignore the harsh reality underpinning the conditions of detention centres in Malta.

When combining poor conditions with detention of people who could be out working, pending the processing of an asylum claim, these places turn into a powder keg. Such riots do not happen in a vacuum and it is known that NGOs have offered support and repeatedly asked for dialogue with the policy makers.

Migrant workers and asylum seekers are no different from any other category of human beings. And like any other human being, those on the lower rungs of society - the dispossessed, the emarginated, the racially-discriminated, the poor – can only be expected to react to the circumstances they find themselves in.

But the reaction, in itself, is often unpredictable, and will vary from individual to individual. Some will be frightened, some aggressive; others may be gentle, and some more prone to violence more than others.

Given the particular nature of the immigration phenomenon, one must also factor in the realities asylum seekers will have left behind when leaving their home countries in pursuit of their tragic ‘European dream’.

Some could have experienced violence – either at home, or at the hands of human traffickers along the way; some may have been raped or tortured, or seen a friend murdered. Many will still be traumatised by their experiences: and again, their reaction to trauma will take different forms. Some might succumb to irrationality, and pose a danger to themselves or others; others may be so docile that they are willing accept conditions none of us would accept to make a living… and thus become easy prey for exploitation.

In short, generalisations are odious, and ignore not just the conditions from where these people in detention have hailed from, but also our own history. As a nation, we seem to have quickly forgotten the times when poor, unemployed Maltese citizens were left with no option but to emigrate in search of work: only to face discrimination and exploitation overseas.

Seen from this perspective, the ‘us versus them’ mentality that seems to instantly kick in, whenever this topic is discussed in any public forum, makes no sense whatsoever.  

There is no doubt that one expects laws to be enforced and full protection to be given to both workers and residents in open centres from any act of violence. But asylum seekers are also victims of violence, and they too deserve solidarity.

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