Despair of soldiers in ‘obscene’ Safi centre
‘You have to catch escapees using just your bare hands’
A soldier working within Safi detention centre has vented the fears and frustrations he faces and warned that unless changes are made the next victim “will be one of us”.
“The problem with the system is that there is no system,” the soldier told The Sunday Times on condition of anonymity.
Michael* and former soldier David* who worked in detention centres for several years spoke of the mounting frustration faced by the guards as well as the asylum seekers cooped up in detention camps.
In a candid interview, Michael described “obscene” understaffing problems, bemoaned soldiers’ lack of equipment and sympathised with poor conditions faced by detainees.
“Two have died so far. The next time, it will either be one of us or a member of the detention service.”
Ifeanyi Nwokoye and Mamadou Kamara died while in the custody of detention officials over the past year, prompting many to discuss whether the strict migrant detention policy was really working.
An inquiry into Mr Nwokoye’s death in 2011 is yet to be concluded but has found that he was dealt multiple blows, while two men have been charged with the murder of Mr Kamara, who died last month. Both Mr Nwokoye and Mr Kamara died shortly after being recaptured following botched escape attempts.
Michael stopped short of defending his colleagues’ actions – “they’re now in court, let’s give them a fair trial” – but could relate to the situation.
“A man escapes and you have to catch him using nothing but your bare hands and handcuffs. He’s obviously not going to come easily. What are you going to do? Putting soldiers in that situation is asking for problems.”
His perspective was backed by former soldier David, who said soldiers were trained to use force only when it was justified, legitimate and in the minimum dose necessary.
“But gauging what exactly is the minimum force necessary can be problematic. Soldiers, like everyone else, get genuinely scared sometimes. What are they meant to do if all they’ve got is their fists?”
David continued: “Soldiers are currently tackling a 21st century problem using tools of 40 years ago. Times have moved on and the authorities should be looking at disabling technology such as tasers.”
Inadequate staffing levels were also taking their toll, he said.
“Last week there were four AFM soldiers for all of Ħal Far and Safi detention centres. We never have more than five soldiers on duty at Safi during a single shift, for 800 detainees.”
Such numbers were a significant downgrade from his time in the army, David said. “We had plenty of soldiers in my time. At the very worst, you’d have 10 to 15 soldiers on every shift, guarding 300 migrants.”
Soldiers are assigned to detention centres by their superiors. Members of the Detention Service, on the other hand, are civilians who have signed up for the job.
According to Michael, the Detention Service is also impossibly stretched. “I sometimes get to work in the morning and find Detention Service workers slumped over, asleep. They’ll have worked from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. and then again from 7 p.m. till 7 a.m.”
Escapes happen more regularly than people think, he said. “But they don’t tell you guys [the media] about it. The day after Mr Kamara died, two people escaped. It’s not that uncommon.”
The deaths of Mr Nwokoye and Mr Kamara and subsequent media attention had taught him and some of his colleagues a lesson, he said.
“If I’m told to go one way, I just go in the opposite direction. We’ve all got family at home: why should I get myself into unnecessary trouble?”
That reaction garnered some sympathy from David. “A soldier who messes up while fixing a truck gets a slap on the wrist. Making mistakes in detention is a bigger problem.”
It did not help that soldiers often considered being assigned to detention duties as a second-rate job, he added.
“Perhaps it would help if there was a separate army service explicitly dedicated to detention duties. And I imagine private security companies might eventually get involved,” David said.
Michael waved away suggestions that detention personnel were racist. “You get bad apples on both sides of the fence. We get called ‘white dogs’ by some migrants. Isn’t that racist?”
The cultural sensitivity training offered to detention personnel was “banal”, he said, making soldiers feel “as though we’re the enemies of the state”.
“But really, it’s useless trying to paint either us or them as saints. Some are good people, others aren’t. I feel sorry for some of them, they don’t deserve this. If you walk into the warehouse at Safi right now, you’d probably faint with the heat.”
Both Michael and David had harsh words for some of the NGOs working within the field. Although both acknowledged that some served important roles, others only served to antagonise, they said.
“They promise migrants the earth, but then they go home and we’re the ones who look like the bad guys,” Michael said.
David added: “Organisations like the Jesuit Refugee Service do great work, but some NGO types empathise so much that they end up painting an unrealistic picture.”
As the interview drew to a close, Michael threw his hands up in exasperation.
“It’s never been so bad. Morale is down the drain and I know many of us dread having to go to work now.”
He held out little hope for improvements. “What did the previous minister do? Nothing. Not that the opposition seems to have many ideas. And as for the head of the army, with him it’s...”
David was less inflammatory. “Politicians have to make do with limited resources, while army commanders often have to shield their superiors. But they have to look out for their soldiers’ needs and make the case for them politically. Commanders can’t simply look after their own stripes.”
“I’m done trying to change things,” Michael told The Sunday Times. “Now I just go to work, keep my head down, and hope there isn’t any trouble. Then I clock off, go home – and do it all over again the next day.”