Malta's detention policy and racism
The recent report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) criticises Malta for its policy of imposing a period of detention on illegal immigrants arriving here pending their application for asylum. The report asserts that this fuels racism among the Maltese.
Alas, the report is simplistic. Because the commission's purpose is to monitor "racism, xenophobia, anti-semitism and intolerance" it inevitably sees the very complex problem of illegal immigration in Malta almost exclusively through that narrow prism. The situation is far more nuanced than that and it would be as well for international bodies like ECRI to try to assess it with greater objectivity.
That there is an element of latent racism and xenophobia among the Maltese is difficult to deny. But it would be wrong to deduce that this follows from the government's policy of detention. Doing so would be misleading. Considerable practical merit is seen in arrangements that allow the government proper control of illegal arrivals in the country through the process of detention while their applications are being considered. To do otherwise would be to risk losing control over an already difficult asylum process.
As to the accusation of racism in the face of the tidal wave of illegal immigrants, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa - amounting in relative population terms to the equivalent of almost 1.5 million entering the United Kingdom or France in the last six years - what those who find the Maltese expressions of concern unacceptable fail to appreciate is that this is for this population a new phenomenon. While most advanced countries in Europe have been receiving an influx of coloured immigrants over the last three or four decades, this is for Malta a new experience. Most countries in Europe have learnt over time to cope with the inevitable stresses and strains that mass migration has brought - and, indeed, to adapt to the demands of multi-culturalism and multi-racism. Not without problems, mind you!
Malta still has to learn to adapt to the situation. Illegal immigration is not going to cease in the foreseeable future. The likelihood is that it will get worse as African failed states multiply and climate change exacerbates mass migration. Thus, there is an urgent need for the government to face up to this challenge.
There is an inclination to suppose that Malta can somehow be spared the consequences of illegal immigration by a munificent European Union. Of course, Malta should expect solidarity and burden-sharing by the EU to feature in any policy - the ECRI report was notably silent about this - but there are still many things that the country should be doing for itself.
Foremost among these is the need for a concerted effort by the government to ensure that those who are given asylum or protection here are treated in a civilised and humane manner. This means ensuring that conditions they live under in open accommodation centres are considerably better, preparing to integrate them into our society and using their employment skills more productively. It also means an exercise in leadership by the government, the Church and opinion-formers in civil society to stress that misplaced racism and xenophobia are unacceptable and that the natural fears and prejudices that exist must be discouraged.