[QODLink]
Opinion

Detention in Malta: Europe's migrant prison

Malta's detention of asylum seekers is part and parcel of the racist and anti-immigrant frenzy now sweeping Europe.

Last updated: 18 May 2014 12:03
Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
Email Article
Print Article
Share article
Send Feedback
Migrants arrive onboard a Maltese armed forces vessel after being rescued at sea [EPA]

A recent Quartz article about "unexpected and terrible destinations for the world's persecuted" lists Malta as the industrialised nation with the largest number of asylum seekers per capita: 20.2 for every 1,000 inhabitants. On average, 1,500 undocumented migrants turn up in Malta every year.

Most are from sub-Saharan Africa and arrive by accident to the small European island, which is located south of Sicily, while attempting to sail to mainland Europe. It's thus clearly an "unexpected" destination in the majority of cases, but why is it so "terrible"?

For starters, Malta's policy of mandatory detention of migrants means that the travellers - many of them fleeing violence and political and economic persecution - are often detained for up to 18 months in prison-like conditions. A 2012 report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) specifies that this policy "operates in an automated, indiscriminate and blanket manner in violation of international law". Children, elderly people, and the mentally and physically disabled are not spared by the detention regime.

The report notes that "children may be detained for weeks or months, despite alternative available facilities", and that they are "detained with adults, without any accommodation for their young age, and with no access to school".

What makes the migration issue in general even more teeming with injustice is the degree of Western responsibility - thanks to legacies of colonialism and imperialism - for contemporary conflict and economic ruin in Africa and elsewhere. After wantonly violating the borders of others, the West now hysterically fortifies its borders against the human movement it has played no small role in generating.

And if you don't have mental health issues on arrival, chances are you'll develop some after prolonged subjection to often overcrowded and unsanitary conditions in which human beings are essentially reduced to animal status - the main difference being that animals aren't criminalised for migration.

According to HRW, approximately 93 percent of migrants arriving by boat to Malta are asylum seekers, but only four percent of applicants were awarded refugee status in 2011. Other temporary and less comprehensive forms of protection are, however, provided in many cases - such as subsidiary protection, which involves a residence permit that must be renewed on a yearly basis.

Part of the official rationale behind the oppressive Maltese detention system is that it helps deter migrants from coming to Malta. But it's pretty hard to deter people who have limited options for survival, who aren't trying to come to Malta in the first place, and who frequently aren't even aware of the island's existence prior to landing on it.

Layers of inhumanity

During a visit to the Maltese town of Birzebbuga this past week, I spent time with a 25-year-old man from Gambia who arrived in Malta last October by boat from Libya and was detained for several months in the Safi detention centre, which is conveniently situated on an army base. Reminders of his de facto criminal identity, he said, were constant and visits to the hospital required being put in handcuffs.

He has now been moved to an open immigration reception centre near Birzebbuga where his movements are less restricted and where he sleeps with seven other residents in a small trailer disturbingly referred to as a "container". Less comfortable options also are available; migrants who are expelled from the centre for whatever reason have taken to sleeping inside cement pipes located on the establishment's perimeter.

The less than compassionate reception given to migrants in Malta acquires a whole new layer of inhumanity when one considers the long and perilous journey that generally precedes detention. In my friend's case, he made his way from Gambia to Libya over a period of several months, spent another several months taking in the violent Libyan landscape and then boarded a small boat with 128 other people to traverse the Mediterranean to Italy - or so they thought.

Four days later, food and water supplies had run out and the boat had begun to leak. It was then intercepted by a US warship, which handed the vessel's human cargo off to the Maltese military.

According to my friend, protests by some passengers over their immediate internment at Safi were met with pepper spray and other forms of maltreatment.

He has already been rejected for asylum and subsidiary protection, joining the thousands upon thousands of people whose fates are arbitrarily pronounced each year by the European powers that be. Part of the problem with these verdicts is that the inevitably cursory analyses that go into producing them are incapable of taking into account all of the relevant factors driving individual migration.

How does one presume to determine which asylum claims are legitimate and which are not? If migrants are going to risk their lives travelling for days in overcrowded, leaky boats with no food or water, odds are they have a pretty good reason for doing so.

What makes the migration issue in general even more teeming with injustice is the degree of Western responsibility - thanks to legacies of colonialism and imperialism - for contemporary conflict and economic ruin in Africa and elsewhere. After wantonly violating the borders of others, the West now hysterically fortifies its borders against the human movement it has played no small role in generating.

Of course, such fortifications are not required against the international elite, and news recently emerged that Malta was scheming to sell European Union passports for a mere 1.15m euros ($1.57m).

Usurping victimhood

In a January interview with CNN, Maltese Foreign Minister George Vella declared: "[W]e cannot afford to carry on looking after all these numbers [of migrants], and utilising our resources." He went on to reiterate an appeal for "solidarity" from the EU in dealing with what the Maltese political establishment has taken to calling the migrant "crisis".

These two words also have been catchphrases in the context of migrant shipwrecks entailing huge death tolls. An October 2013 Malta Today article, for example, noted that up to 500 asylum seekers had perished in the vicinity of the island in a matter of two weeks. The article quoted human rights lawyer Neil Falzon, director of the Malta-based human rights NGO aditus, on the inappropriateness in such cases of calls for "solidarity" for Malta and its alleged migrant burden: "If anyone needed solidarity it was the victims of the tragedy; their families, their relatives, the survivors... the children who were separated from their parents, and so on."

In the view of Maltese officialdom, Malta is the fundamental victim of the migration process - not the thousands of economic and political refugees who are then re-victimised by the Maltese detention system.

Although Malta receives significant funding from the EU in exchange for its altruistic role as a first line of defence around Fortress Europe, it's apparently not enough, at least according to Vella's financial calculations. Interestingly, Malta appears to be going about the migration issue in the costliest way possible.

A 2011 conference organised by the UN's refugees and human rights agencies concluded that "alternatives to detention are considerably less expensive than detention", as well as more effective and more humane. These include "registration and/or deposit of documents, bond/bail, reporting conditions, community release and supervision, designated residence, electronic monitoring or home curfew".

In an email to me, Falzon speculated about the reasons Malta persists in implementing what he described as "the most expensive, forceful and harmful migration management regime". The policy "seems to be based on the government's need to be perceived as a strong and controlling force", he said. The arrangement is sold to the public via fearmongering "reminders of invasion, terrorism, disease and over-population" and the portrayal of detention as critical for "national security, social order and cohesion".

But prospects for long-term social cohesion appear to be somewhat dim. A recent survey of university students found that 40 percent did not want to live on the same street as an immigrant. Another Gambian I met in Birzebbuga recounted an incident in which a Maltese citizen threatened to call the police on him for saying hello.

Malta's compulsive detention of asylum seekers is part and parcel of the racist and anti-immigrant frenzy now sweeping Europe. If justice is ever to penetrate the continent's borders, what really needs to be detained is the detention policy itself.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

1584

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

Source:
Al Jazeera
Email Article
Print Article
Share article
Send Feedback
Topics in this article
People
Country
City
Organisation
Featured on Al Jazeera
An innovative rehabilitation programme offers Danish fighters in Syria an escape route and help without prosecution.
Street tension between radical Muslims and Holland's hard right rises, as Islamic State anxiety grows.
Take an immersive look at the challenges facing the war-torn country as US troops begin their withdrawal.
Ministers and MPs caught on camera sleeping through important speeches have sparked criticism that they are not working.
Featured
< >