No reports of migrant abuse for three years
Not a single detention official was reported for racist or violent behaviour in the past three years but NGOs say this paints a skewed picture of the hostile environment in which detained migrants live.
The Times asked for the number of reports in light of the recent alleged murder of a migrant by soldiers and the revelations that followed about a similar incident last year, which remains shrouded in mystery.
The government said no detention officials had ever been reported for racist or violent behaviour towards migrants.
Meanwhile, only one Armed Forces of Malta soldier who works with migrants was disciplined in the past four years, though it still not clear what action was taken against him apart from being transferred.
This soldier, whom the authorities refused to name, had “assaulted” a Tunisian migrant last year during the April escape that resulted in the death of Nigerian Ifeanyi Nwokoye.
Another unnamed AFM soldier – who was involved in the death of Mr Nwokoye – was also transferred.
However, no disciplinary action has yet been taken, pending the outcome of a delayed magisterial inquiry.
Four detention services officials, also “directly involved” in Mr Nwokoye’s death, are still working with migrants since the government inquiry into the incident did not recommend steps to be taken against them.
Meanwhile, three AFM soldiers are now facing court charges over the alleged murder of Malian migrant Mamadou Kamara late last month.
It comes as no surprise to human rights activist Neil Falzon that, despite the two serious incidents in less than two years, no reports of violence were filed in the past.
“This is not because there have been no incidents,” he said, but because migrants did not have any trust in the system.
“These people are locked up in a very oppressive environment and they know they will remain there for a number of months, having to deal with the perpetrator whom they want to report.”
One possible channel for migrants to file a report is through the Detention Visitors’ Board but there have been situations where the complaints reach the soldiers, which made it hard to trust the system.
Meanwhile, the board’s mandate was “weak” and there were no proper redress mechanisms for complaints.
Dr Falzon said migrants often gave NGO workers anecdotal evidence of bad behaviour by detention officials but consistently refused to give their consent for a report to be filed.
This is a phenomenon witnessed in other fields. Everyone was aware of gender discrimination, he said, but the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality received few complaints.
A closer comparison is that of prisoners, who rarely report the warders who guard them.
Dr Falzon said: “It’s either because people are not aware of the procedures or because they don’t trust them.”
In his opinion, the visitors board must be strengthened and there should be a proper redress mechanism in place so if someone complained they were protected, not made more vulnerable.
But ultimately it was the entire detention “regime” that had to be rethought.
“The whole system is conducive to violence. The second you walk in, there is already an air of hostility and fear. Tensions are high from both sides. The soldiers are working in very difficult conditions so even their stress levels are high,” he says.
But former Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici said the problem was not detention but the behaviour of some individuals who worked with migrants.
“If these soldiers felt they could act in this way simply because a person is black – and this is something the court must establish – that is the problem,” he said, referring to the recent murder case.
If the allegations brought against the three charged soldiers were true, the migrant killing was a “criminal and most abominable act”, and few changes in detention policy could have prevented it.
“The change must be made in their hearts and minds.”
Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he spearheaded several reforms as minister, including the introduction of legislation where any crime aggravated by racist or xenophobic sentiments would be given higher penalties.
He also implemented all the recommendations made by the government inquiry board last year, except for the CCTV cameras, which were in the process of being bought.
“My only satisfaction is that I never covered up for anyone.
“When someone did something wrong, I launched an inquiry over and above the magisterial inquiry to ensure transparency,” he said.