There will be more Mamadou Kamaras
What if Mamadou Kamara hadn’t died? This, I believe, is the key question we need to ask. It raises a number of points about the dynamics and legitimacy of Malta’s current detention policy.
But first, some clear demarcation of argument is necessary. Specifically, we want to avoid conflating the issues of detention and migration generally. That the first follows from the second is a matter of chronology. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it ‘follows’ in the sense that the two should be discussed as connected parts of a general argument.
On the contrary I think it’s a mistake to bring in ‘migration’ when talking about detention. Detention is primarily about people’s freedom and well-being, what one might call a human rights issue. Migration and its perceived pros and cons is a different topic altogether.
For example, it’s possible (logically tenable, that is) to be 100 per cent ‘against’ migration, whatever that means, and still think that detention is a bad idea.
But back to Kamara. Let’s say he had chosen to hurt himself in less fatal ways than he actually did – that he hadn’t kicked himself in the groin, for example.
He would probably have seen a doctor, been prescribed a couple of painkillers, and spent a couple of weeks talking to his bruises in a language only they would understand.
The only reason we know that Kamara hurt himself is that he died from his injuries. In fact it’s the only reason why we know he ever existed at all – that he had a face and a name and family and friends and so on. Better-aimed blows and he would simply be a klandestin, locked away and forgotten. A high price to pay for 15 minutes of fame but there we go.
Which brings me to my first point. One of the really dubious things about detention as preached and practised in Malta today is that it renders migrants invisible, unreachable, and silent. Journalists are only rarely allowed in and even then only at the discretion of the authorities.
The same applies to humanitarian NGOs, who have to live by an unwritten rule: That they behave with the information. They only agree to do so because they think, probably rightly, that that’s the lesser evil. They don’t always do. Médecins sans Frontières spilled the beans in 2009 and there was chaos.
The authorities get to choose who visits where, when, in other words. It doesn’t take a doctorate in media studies to realise that this contravenes the most basic principles of open and functional media scrutiny. Nor is it hard to figure out that it’s a recipe for disaster.
There’s a second ingredient. Maybe it’s just me but I somehow don’t feel it’s a particularly good idea to have a uniformed corps and defenceless people in the same cage or back of a van. It’s as unfair on the jailers as it is on the jailed.
A lot has been said and written on how such set-ups dehumanise inmates and render them vulnerable to abuse. Thing is they also dehumanise the people in charge and render them vulnerable to their darker moments. Particularly if they know they’re not being watched by the outside world, one might add.
The field is a tricky one and comes with tremendous legal, among other, implications. Which is precisely why it’s unwise for a detention policy, no matter how well-meaning (notions of ‘order’ and ‘discipline’ sound useful), to go for that model.
My third point concerns racism. It’s been said that Kamara hurt himself because he hated blacks. I don’t think so. Racism can never be a cause, only an effect. No one is born thinking that blacks or Jews or dagos are sort of cuddly as children but unnice as adults. That much appears obvious to me.
And yet, essentialist and emanationist notions of racism – that is to say, the belief that racism is innate and exists prior to the nastiness that results from it – are common even among the best-intentioned. What believers fail to understand is that racism exists if and only if we go through the trouble of producing it.
This is actually very relevant to my argument. I’d like to suggest that one of the things that produce racism in Malta, in an active and sustained way at that, is precisely detention in its current form.
The minute black (they mostly are) people land in Malta, they are herded onto buses by uniformed personnel wearing surgical gloves and then locked up for some months ‘for our protection’(presumably from disease, invasion,terrorism, and such).
And so it goes on, as boatload after boatload of individual dreams and hopes are rudely blended into the faceless black mass we call klandestini. On the most charitable of days we might find it in our hearts to call them imsieken (pitiful), but only just. It turns out racism is easy to make. All that’s needed is a political decision or two, a drizzle of cobbled-together history, and a dash of fuzzy thought.
There are consequences to this argument. Take our political parties, that practically fell over each other in their zeal to condemn racism last week.
I was not impressed, because it so happens that these are the same parties that have consistently upheld the policy of detention as a necessary evil at worst, a rather good idea more likely.
With very few exceptions, politicians from all sides (and consensus appears easy to reach on the more controversial issues, funnily enough) have chosen to ignore the reams of reports, the psychiatric evidence, and the protests of humanitarian organisations. They even ignored, nay perverted, the findings and judgment of the European Court of Human Rights. The case was that of Khaled Louled Massoud vs Malta (Application no. 24340/08), just in case we’ve forgotten.
They’ve preferred instead to pander to popular misconceptions of what detention does. Their model throughout has been the Norman Lowell recipe of making the lives of migrants (I quote) “as arduous as possible”, presumably as a type of deterrent. Then this happens, and they condemn racism.
What we have here is a unique phenomenon in philosophy in which one cultivates the cause but complains about the effect. To put it differently, truly a case of renouncing the devil and then proceeding cheerfully to carry out his works.