The town that governments forgot... | Frans Debono

The Prime Minister’s call for army involvement in policing Malta’s crime ‘hotspots’ has evoked visions of lawlessness and mob rule in places like Marsa, among others. But veteran councillor (and current mayor) Frans Debono, while welcoming the acknowledgement of his home town’s problems, argues it has more to do with political will and Malta’s endemic law enforcement limitations

Marsa has been in the news a lot recently; and not in very flattering ways. The recent dramatic arrest of the three main suspects in Daphne Caruana’s murder took place in Albert Town, the locality’s most notorious neighbourhood... while rumours of latent unrest, mostly associated with Marsa’s proportionately large immigrant community, has arguably prompted the Prime Minister to announce a quasi-military crackdown on crime. But is this impression an accurate description of Marsa at street-level? Is the law enforcement situation in Marsa really as critical as it is being portrayed?

It does get a little exaggerated sometimes. Marsa is a locality like others: it goes through phases, like other localities went through similar phases of their own. Qawra, Bugibba, Paceville, Cottonera... these are all places that went through considerable social changes, and are now associated with certain types of crime.

As for what the Prime Minister said, my understanding was that the army would help the police in those localities... if there is need. I think it is good idea, because the police do not always have the available manpower when it is needed. Bear in mind that the police district which includes Marsa is very vast. It covers almost up to Rabat and Bahrija. It is an enormous district, and there is need not just for policemen, but also vehicles, and other assets and resources.

The simple truth is that the police resources are overstretched. Sometimes, when there is a lack of policemen on duty in our locality – or any other – the issue will be down to the law-courts. The police have to go in and out of court all the time: they have to testify in all the cases they would have brought to trial. So you end up with an absence of police on the ground at certain times of the day. Not to mention sick leave, police officers who are unavailable for whatever other reason...  at the end of the day, Malta is what it is. It has its limitations, as we all know. Even with the added input of the army, the police force will probably still be overstretched...

If a locality doesn’t have its own minister or prominent MP hailing from it... it’s like you don’t have your own horse in the race. In 25 years, no ‘Marsi’ was ever a government MP or member of Cabinet. And what did we get from the government in those 25 years?

The situation you describe (limited resources) has, however, always been true about Malta in general, and Marsa in particular – where the police station itself was disused for years. Yet the PM’s declaration seems to suggest that there has been a worsening of the crime situation in all those localities. Is that true of Marsa, in your experience?

In general, the need for more police presence is felt across the entire district. With regard to Marsa, you have to look at how the locality has evolved over the years. When the open centre for immigrants was inaugurated some eight or nine years ago, there was never any impact assessment on how it would affect the locality. That was a huge mistake.

The government at the time decided to open a centre for large numbers of people... in the heart of a town that has an ageing population. And the residents of this centre were given a deadline: after a period of six months to a year, they would have to move out.

The accommodation was no longer available, and these people were left to fend for themselves: to find a place where to sleep, and to try and live their life as best they could. So seeing as they had been located in Marsa in the first place, it is understandable that they would look for places to live in the same town.  This resulted in a greater mix of people, all living in the same area. Nothing wrong with that in itself; the problem is that the Marsa population was dwindling anyway. 

The government of the day had no real strategy to deal with the crisis; perhaps because it never expected the situation to get so bad, and so wasn’t really prepared. Whatever the case, they looked at the problem from a short-term perspective, not a long-term one. The important thing was to find a place where to put all these people

Could you give examples of the sort of social problems or issues we’re talking about here? 

Let me put it this way: Marsa is a living, breathing locality, just like any other. But unlike some other towns, it is not the sort of place that is only ever visited by people who live there. There are places like that in Malta and Gozo – small villages, where the only people you’ll only ever meet are the three or 400 local residents. Marsa is different. Here, we are at the centre of Malta... in every sense. To go from one side of the island to the other, you have to pass through Marsa. It serves as a bridge between north and south.

We are close to the harbour, which used to be the main commercial and economic centre of Malta. It is a curse, perhaps, but also a blessing. If it wasn’t for all that commercial activity offering employment, Marsa as we know it might not even exist at all.  But to turn to the problems you mention; the issue of integration, which wasn’t very well received by residents here, was largely down to the fact that nearly all of the many foreigners who were settled here, were men. If there were 1,600 people in the Marsa Open Centre at any time, they would all have been men. Now: one can understand the exigencies of these people. Let’s be honest, it was a national crisis at the time. The continuous influx of immigrants was a concrete, national emergency.

The government of the day had no real strategy to deal with it; perhaps because it never expected the situation to get so bad, and so wasn’t really prepared. Whatever the case, they looked at the problem from a short-term perspective, not a long-term one. The important thing was to find a place where to put all these people. But I think that, back then, nobody really predicted the long-term consequences. Whether, for instance, all these people coming into the country were here to stay, or not. Because let’s face it: some of the people who came here included those who simply couldn’t find a safe place anywhere else. They can’t go back, they can’t go forward... so they’re basically stuck. We have to be realistic about this. Yet there was no discussion about this problem on the national agenda. It was an issue I raised back in 2008 with the Prime Minister (when he was still Opposition leader).

I urged Joseph Muscat to place this issue on the national agenda, as it was a long-term problem we could see developing before our eyes. Not a ‘problem’ because of the individual people concerned... but because Marsa was undergoing a radical transformation: from a place inhabited almost exclusively by Maltese, to one where the majority was becoming foreign. The result of those meetings was a series of parliamentary discussions. But it was the same everywhere, even in the international sphere. The issue of immigration would be regularly discussed, by the European parliament, by other national parliaments... but in between those discussions, it would be mostly forgotten. 

But isn’t it also true that Marsa’s reputation as a crime hotspot preceded the Marsa Open Centre’, and even the immigration crisis itself? And if so: how do you account for that reputation to begin with?  

You have to put things into their proper historical context. At the time we’re talking about – the immigration crisis reached its peak around 2006,7,8 – Marsa’s population was already in steep decline. The harbour side of Marsa – which stretches all the way to Valletta – had already lost most of its population, as the activity in the harbour itself – the dockyard, Malta Shipbuilding, etc - began to wind down. But it wasn’t always that way. Back in the 1970s, Mintoff had tried to undertake an entire revolution of the area. He established the housing estates, removed the slums and tenements that used to exist here... and this gave a new lease of life to the locality. And for 30 years, this policy bore fruit: it boosted Marsa’s population. But all these years later, these people have now aged. Maltese families have got smaller... where, in the past, families would have five or six children, now they have maybe one or two. And there was a diversification of the reasons those children would want to leave Marsa.

In recent years, there was a decline in the quality of life here. For one thing, the issue of the power station was always a factor. That power station did a lot of damage to this area... for 65 years. For 65 whole years – for that’s how long it was there - it negatively impacted the environment. And in recent years, people became more aware of environmental issues. They knew there was a health risk living in Marsa: anyone suffering from asthma, etc., would certainly not want to stay here. And up to a point, it got worse over time. There was an improvement when the power station was converted from coal to oil... but then, we started using heavy fuel oil, and the situation worsened. So much so, that some people moved from Marsa to Fgura... only to find that the fly-ash reached them there as well.

Meanwhile, this sort of problem is not limited to Marsa. In Cottonera, for instance, for years and years there was the impact of grid-blasting on nearby residents, and other activities associated with the Dockyard. Cottonera started to regenerate only after the dockyard closed. After that, the area improved drastically. Having said that, it remains a fact that ALL of Malta’s heavy industry is sited in the south of the island...

In fact, a very common complaint in Marsa is that the area has traditionally been viewed as a ‘dumping site’ for all Malta’s ‘unwanted issues’ – be they polluting industries, or social measures such as an open centre for migrants. Do you feel this way too?

Up to a point, it’s undeniable. Traditionally, the excuse was always that we are ‘close to the harbour’. And it used to be true: before the Freeport was opened in Marsaxlokk, practically all Malta’s commercial or industrial shipping used to take place in the Grand Harbour. But unfortunately, there is another dimension to the issue.  If a locality doesn’t have its own minister or prominent MP hailing from it... it’s like you don’t have your own horse in the race. In 25 years, no ‘Marsi’ was ever a government MP or member of Cabinet. And what did we get from the government in those 25 years? Nothing.

In the 1980s, we used to have Dr Joe Brincat [former deputy prime minister]... but from then on, Marsa has never elected a government MP. It shouldn’t be this way, but that fact has always kept us back. And then, when the local councils were established in the 1990s, the people of Marsa began to increasingly turn to the council for their needs. Even if the local council does not necessarily have the power or resources to address those needs...

Yet the Marsa Local Council itself seems to have a few resources: the building we are in, for instance, is arguably the largest and most impressive local council headquarters I’ve ever seen...

But we didn’t start like that. Ask anyone here, and they’ll tell you. At the beginning we hardly even had a road with tarmac, or a public garden to speak of. When this council was first set up in 1994, and I became its first mayor... we didn’t have an office at all. We were given a disused room at the Marsa police station. Where can you go from there? How can a local council be expected to administer to the locality’s needs, when all it is given is an empty room in a police station? And an empty police station, too.

For long years, the Marsa police station was closed nearly all the time. We spent almost 20 years operating from that room... until we managed to have this building erected. And it was built from the local council’s own income: not out of any additional funding given to us by the central government.

Unfortunately, the council found no help from government... when compared to other localities, some of which were given prime locations for their local councils. All the same, I’m not complaining. I’m not sorry it happened that way. After all, I am one of the few in this country who was active in local councils from day one.  When you have a long-term vision, you look ahead to where you want to take the locality... not backwards, to where it used to be.