Bishop's words find little fertile ground among politicians
The political parties will not be heeding the advice of Gozo Bishop Mario Grech to make an "honest, sincere and level-headed assessment" of the policy to detain illegal immigrants for a maximum of 18 months.
Mgr Grech made the appeal last Friday in a hard-hitting homily in which, for the first time, a senior Church member lashed out at the government's detention policy.
"The time has come to ask ourselves in all honesty: Is it possible that a civilised country such as ours, having the values we think we are defined by, sees nothing wrong in keeping locked in detention women and men who committed no crime and who are only here because they are seeking another country's protection," Mgr Grech had said.
However, the Bishop's words have found little fertile ground among politicians. When asked for his reaction, Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici said he had "no comment to make on this matter".
On the other hand, his counterpart from the opposition benches, Michael Falzon, defended the detention policy insisting it was necessary in view of the "geographical, demographic and other realities" of the country. He also defended the policy on grounds of national security.
While describing Mgr Grech's contribution as "courageous", Alternattiva Demokratika deputy chairman Stephen Cachia insisted that "some form" of detention was required.
Ironically, a day before Mgr Grech's homily, Dr Mifsud Bonnici had told the Nationalist Party's grassroots meeting that the detention policy was "essential" for "security reasons".
With reference to conditions in the detention centres, Dr Mifsud Bonnici had also said that the government "never promised to provide five-star accommodation".
However, far from five-star accommodation, Mgr Grech criticised long-term detention arguing that it led asylum-seekers to "mental breakdown and did not prepare them to look benevolently upon the society in which they were to live until the time came for them to able to return to their country or to move on".
Reiterating the Labour Party's agreement with government's detention policy, Dr Falzon defended the political consensus over the issue.
"While I respect Mgr Grech's statement and appreciate that he may be looking at the issue of detention from a moral and religious aspect, something which one would expect from the Bishop of Gozo, as politicians we have to look at the issue of detention from a much wider perspective," Dr Falzon said.
He pointed out that it was only those who were not entitled to refugee status or humanitarian protection that ended up spending a long period in detention.
"Those entitled to protection are released after a few months. Clearly, we cannot condone illegality. On the other hand, I have no difficulty whatsoever in insisting that the conditions of detention be humane and dignified," Dr Falzon said.
On his part, Mr Cachia insisted that Mgr Grech represented a "critical conscience", which was necessary in society.
"While AD acknowledges that some form of detention is necessary, clearly there is need for change. The current system is causing problems. As a country we need to get to terms with the fact that immigration is here to stay and initiate a national discussion that seeks to balance out the national interest and the management of this phenomenon in a dignified way that reflects our European credentials," Mr Cachia said.
Mgr Grech's homily drew fire from Azzjoni Nazzjonali. It "counselled" the bishop not to make the same mistake NGOs were making in defending the rights of the immigrants but not those of the local population.
"We expect people in his position to defend not only minority rights but also the culture that they have inherited from his own family. It is called love of one's country," the party said, describing the bishop's appeal as making "little sense".
Mgr Grech delivered his homily on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, five days after the tragic death of more than 200 immigrants off the Libyan coast.
"How many disrupted lives? How many hopes of freedom and new life foundered on the seabed?... The Mother of all humanity weeps today as she beholds the human tragedy of those who are escaping persecution, war and unbearable poverty in their countries," he said.
"Irregular immigration and our response to it as a nation and as Christians has become the greatest test of our faith today," Mgr Grech told the congregation.