Give migrants decency
Our detention centres are cauldrons, and not just in the sweltering summer heat. They bring migrants and their guards face to face every day in the most unpleasant of circumstances in conditions that are suitable for neither.
Detention officials have to put up with the frustration of men who are incarcerated and angry. They have to contend with abuse and occasional physical violence. Their job is undoubtedly one of the most difficult and there is evidence to suggest they are not receiving sufficient training to carry out this unenviable task.
For migrants, detention is a living hell. The majority of them risk their lives to cross the water in search of a better life. When they arrive they are thrown behind bars – their only ‘crime’ is their attempt to improve their lot, sometimes to get away from wars and famine – and they can spend up to 18 months in this oppressive atmosphere. The sight of black people behind bars only serves to reinforce the horrendous opinion held by some that they are criminals.
Given these circumstances, it is little wonder they try to escape. It is little wonder they do things they shouldn’t in desperation. People who do not sympathise with their plight should not consider themselves to form part of the civilised human race.
Last weekend one of these immigrants, Mamadou Kamara, died as a result of injuries he received following what seems to have been a violent episode. Last Sunday, two soldiers were charged with the migrant’s murder and another was accused of tampering with evidence.
The authorities should be commended for the speed with which they acted on this case, despite initially vague statements. However, one cannot help but feel that details of what actually took place would have emerged more quickly had the victim been a Maltese national.
We need to know the circumstances, if nothing else to counter any rumours that are unfair to the deceased and on the accused. We need to put measures in place to try to ensure that an untimely death does not happen again.
But beyond that, the government must review the approach to irregular migration. Lawrence Gonzi has, at the risk of electoral harm, been consistently vociferous in defence of their rights. The same cannot be said for the opposition leader. But two factors mar the good work.
One is the unquestioning acceptance of the agreements Italy has signed with Libya to push migrants back to their point of departure – when there are no guarantees that their rights are being respected.
Secondly, it is time to do away with the mandatory detention policy which only serves to sow the seeds of resentment on both sides.
The bishops made a most welcome foray into the social arena last week not only when they called for answers on the Kamara case – but just as pertinently when they called for a review of the detention policy. It is important that they carry their message to the pulpit.
In a measured response to Mr Kamara’s death, the UNHCR also questioned the detention policy and offered its assistance to establish a workable alternative.
There is no longer any justifiable reason not to achieve this. The most reasonable first step would be to put new arrivals in non-custodial reception centres until their claims for refugee status are heard.
It is not yet clear whether irregular migration will this year reach the proportions we have experienced in the past.
But while we wait, it is all the more important to get our house in order to ensure we treat all irregular immigrants with the decency they deserve.