Our response to violence cannot be ‘more violence’ | Neil Falzon

Human rights activist NEIL FALZON, of the Aditus Foundation, argues that there is a ‘clear and unmistakable’ causal link between government’s immigration policies, and an apparent surge in violent racist crime

Neil Falzon
Neil Falzon

After recent allegations of racially-motivated police brutality, both the Prime Minister and Home Affairs Ministers stated that: “this case is not representative of the Police Force as a whole’. Your own reaction, however, was to remind us that there were several analogous incidents in the past: including the murder of Lassana Cisse in 2019. Do feel, then, that this incident IS actually ‘representative’: if not of the Malta Police Force, at least of a general malaise within our law enforcement institutions?

Yes, absolutely. While I agree that this case does not reflect the attitude of the Malta Police Force, as a whole – in fact we can even confirm this ourselves, through the excellent relations we have with a number of police officers – I would say it is definitely representative of the wider system.

If you look at the way Malta has chosen to treat migrants, for the past 20 years – because that’s how long I’ve been involved in this issue – it has always been in a very harsh, derogatory and shameful manner.  The language we have used; the policies we have successively adopted; our laws; and the way our system has consistently dealt with migrant, in general… it has always been to portray them as ‘lesser humans, than us’. That much is very clear.

And I also think that, in the past five to eight years, the situation has become much, much worse. Just look at the way migrants are treated, from the second they are even close to Malta, out at sea; to when they disembark, and are put through a detention regime…

Even when you look at what’s happening within the community: our employment policies, for instance; or how migrants are treated by Identity Malta, the agency responsible for issuing them with documents… we have received countless reports of racism, in all those spheres.

Now: when talking about racism at an institutional level, we’re obviously not talking about the same sort of ‘violent hunting’ we saw in this case. It’s more along the lines of comments; insults; harassment; attitudes; and so on.

But while it might not be comparable in terms of sheer violence: it is still a systemic approach which dehumanises migrants; and which is allowed to go unchecked…

Do you also see a direct correlation – maybe even a ‘causal relationship’ – between the violent behaviour of individual racists (including the crimes we’re talking about now), and the racist systemic attitudes you have just described?

Yes, I do. For us, the link is very clear, and very unmistakable. It’s spelt out in large letters: underlined, and highlighted in bold. You really can’t miss it, in fact…

So I think that the minister’s comment, that these two things are ‘unrelated’, was not merely ‘naïve’... but intentionally naïve.  Because when you leave people to die out at sea; when you keep people locked up in detention, and deny them their basic rights; when you organise a ‘raid’ on migrants who are illegally staying in Malta… but the raid is portrayed as a ‘clean-up operation’, to ‘rid the streets of black people’… by doing all those things, [government is] sending out the clear, unmistakable message that those people are ‘not worthy of proper treatment, as human beings’.

Now: I’m not suggesting that the minister’s actions are directly responsible, for any individual act of violence. But the government’s words and actions certainly DO fuel violence; because politicians also create a sense of impunity – that it’s ‘OK’ to treat people like that, simply because they are black – and that sentiment trickles all the way down to the individual police officer, at the local station; or to that Identity Malta clerk, sitting at his desk...

These people will feel empowered and emboldened [to adopt racist attitudes]; because if they see that the government is treating migrants this way… why shouldn’t they, too, simply insult those people; or tell them to ‘go back to your country?’

And that [‘go back to your country’] is just the milder form of racism. The more extreme form is what we’ve just seen, in this case: where migrants were actively ‘hunted on the streets’….

For us, however, the real problem is not so much ‘hate speech’, at this level; it’s more the discourse at the highest levels of authority. It’s ‘what the minister says, and does’; it’s the silence of the Opposition; it’s the example set by people in positions of power… and who have, in a way, ‘psychological control’ of the popular mindset.

That, to us, is where the real problem lies.

Speaking of ‘psychological control’: the State also has its own broadcaster to act as a propaganda platform; and what we’ve seen on TVM recently, is daily coverage of that ‘raid on undocumented migrants’…

Precisely: ‘black men in handcuffs, being carted off in police vans’…

At the same time, however, this operation does enjoy widespread popular support: and not just among racists, either. After all: you yourself conceded that those migrants were ‘here illegally’. Doesn’t that also mean that government is within its rights, to arrest and deport those people?

Yes, but then you have to also look at how this operation is being portrayed by the media: especially the State-owned media, which, as you say, is a propaganda tool in the hands of government. Clearly, the intention is to present those people as if they were ‘hardened criminals’; when in fact, they’re only guilty of ‘overstaying their visa’...

At no point, however, did anyone from the ministry show us, or comment about, what happened to all the Maltese people who were renting out accommodation – sometimes in the form of ‘stables’ – to those same migrants. These people raked in hundreds of euros, by renting out places that are not even fit for humans to live in...

Now: if I, as a Maltese citizen, wanted to rent out my apartment to others… I’d have to go through a rigorous MTA licensing-and-testing procedure, involving a whole list of checks and balances; and if I were to breach any of those conditions: I [emphasized] would be the one in trouble… and not the tourists renting my apartment.

In this case, however: the tenants are being portrayed as if they were the only ‘criminals’ involved; and nobody even talks about all the legal breaches – not to mention the sheer exploitation, and abuse – that Maltese landlords were guilty of, when they made all that money by illegally housing them in such unacceptable living conditions.

What did the Minister choose to portray instead? ‘Black people in handcuffs, being escorted by the police’… in what was deliberately made out to look like a ‘Clean Up Malta’ campaign! That, in a nutshell, is the image the government has consciously chosen to project; and as such, the minister cannot so easily claim that what happened was ‘unrelated’, to his own government’s policies and actions.

As we all know, this raid was prompted by that recent viral video of a street brawl in Hamrun. This raises another perspective on the issue: whereas, until recently, institutional racism was limited mostly to the Armed Forces – and even then, largely restricted to the confines of closed detention centres – today, the ‘front line’ seems to have shifted to the streets of Malta’s multi-ethnic localities. Would you agree, then, that a problem that was previously ‘contained’, has now spread out into Maltese society as a whole?

I see what you’re saying; but there are reasons why we don’t have the same problems within detention centres, as we did before. It’s simply because the government has been very effective, in blocking asylum seekers from even reaching our shores at all.  As a consequence, the centres are practically empty; and the tensions there are obviously going to be very different, today.

But there are two things to bear in mind, here. One is that, even if the detention centres are far from overcrowded, it doesn’t mean that there are no longer any problems. It was only three years ago, for instance, that a man was killed in detention…

Which case are you referring to, specifically?

It happened bang in the middle of Covid – which might explain why it wasn’t as widely reported, as any of the others – but in 2019, a man died in detention, allegedly as a result of ‘falling off the fence, while trying to escape’. This also took place in the context of a riot; and we already know that there were other reports of violence, during the same incident.

Now: we have our own suspicions, as to whether that man really did die ‘just because of the fall’. But the reason I’m telling you this, is that there were still tensions within those centres, as recently as 2019: even if the number of detainees was nowhere near what it was 20 years ago…

This brings me to the second point. The moment we go back to a situation where there ARE, once again, large numbers of people in detention – and that could very easily happen, next week – all the same problems will simply crop up again. Because it is only the physical circumstances that have changed; and not the underlying psyche.

But otherwise, yes: Maltese communities are more mixed today, definitely. But I wouldn’t say that that has led to an escalation of violence in the streets…

Well: some might argue that the Hamrun street brawl, on its own, proves that there actually IS more ‘violence in the streets’, today…

Oh, OK: so maybe there is ‘violence in the streets’. But I wouldn’t single out Hamrun as being the main problem. It was only a few years ago, for instance, that car-bombs were regularly going off in the middle of Malta’s busiest roads – in what was suspected to be a turf-war between rival criminal gangs. So yes, there is a level of ‘street-violence’ that has always been there, really…

… but firstly, it’s not just migrants who are perpetrating this kind of violence; and secondly, even if we concede that Hamrun does have a problem, in this regard…  it is not just the Maltese residents who will be feeling unsafe, as a consequence. Other migrants living in the area will also be affected; they will need protection, too.

This is why our response to violence, cannot be ‘more violence.’ If there is a problem with crime in certain neighbourhoods, for instance; it is naturally important to police those areas, and to implement measures to combat crime. But it is just as important to address the underlying social issues – which, in this context, also include the presence of ‘disenfranchised communities’: with all the associated issues of high unemployment; widespread substance abuse, and so on.   

These are all social problems: because crime, in itself, is a symptom of problems within the community. And you don’t respond to social problems, only by mobilising your Police Force…

This raises the question of what can (or should) be done, to address those problems. It’s been two years, for instance, since the Equality Ministry published its action plan on integration: which included, among other things, ‘anti-racism training’ for the police. How much of that plan has been implemented, in the meantime?   

To be honest: quite a lot, actually. Training sessions were, in fact, organised; there have been various community-support activities; the Integration Unit was set up - and I might add that we work very well with it - so all in all, I would say a lot of progress has been achieved, on that front.

But what we flagged straight away to the authorities – even when, around a year ago, government launched its ‘Anti-Racism Action Plan’, as a follow-up – was that: it’s great to have all these new policies; it’s great to have an Integration Unit, and all the necessary structures in place… BUT… as long as the framework of the State remains ‘anti-migrant’, none of it is actually going to work.

You can ‘train police officers’ as much as you like – even until they collapse onto the floor in exhaustion - but if they continue to feel empowered, by the minister’s statements and actions, to treat migrants as ‘lesser human beings’… then all that training will be, quite frankly, useless.

Onto a different (albeit distantly related) topic: today also marks the fifth anniversary of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder in 2017. Aditus is among several NGOs to publicly campaign for justice in this case; and also, to criticise government for failing to implement all of the judicial inquiry’s ‘rule of law’ recommendations (among other issues). So… how much progress would you say has really been made, in achieving ‘Justice for Daphne Caruana Galizia’?

Well, the short answer is very clearly ‘not enough’: and it’s not just us saying that; everybody is saying it, both locally and internationally. Because while a number of changes have been made - and government will no doubt flag the Constitutional amendments [concerning the appointment of the judiciary] - how were those amendments adopted, in practice? In secrecy with the Opposition; and with no public consultation whatsoever.

What one would expect in a democratic society, however, is that: when you have so many serious recommendations, by so many different actors, all telling you the exact same thing… the one thing you should do is: ‘sit down, and draw up an action plan’.

Basically, you need to identify: a) what needs to be changed; b) by when the changes must be made; and - most important of all - c) who is going to implement these changes. The OPM? The Justice Ministry? Who is going to be responsible for which deliverables; and by when are they going to be delivered?

And then, you start implementing the action plan. But it cannot just be a case of ‘the government in cahoots with the Opposition; agreeing on certain things, either because it maintains the status quo; or because it strengthens a future status quo…’

No; it’s very clear. In a democracy, you have to have consultation with civil society; you have to have an independent media, and so on. These are the very fundamentals of democracy; and the fact that government evidently still hasn’t understood this, five whole years later, is so worrying that… it’s beyond words, how worried we actually are.

And it says a lot about how the government is treating the whole issue: in reality, there is no real willingness, on its part, to do anything at all...