Malta’s migrant detention centre policy has always been and will probably remain a headache for any Minister of Home Affairs.

Although, across the board, one’s sensation is that the Maltese are, by and large, in favour of maintaining illegal immigrant detention centres, the government has had to cope with the backlash from the often vociferous protests of the people living close to these “establishments”. The challenges with these centres are infrastructural, economic and also humanitarian.

Internationally, it has been even worse. Many non-governmental organisations (Médecins Sans Frontières, the Jesuit Refugee Service) and international agencies (the United Nations and the European Union) have continuously clambered for the closure of detention centres and a complete reversal of Malta’s detention policy. This they do without coming up with long-term realistic and practical alternatives to Malta’s long-running saga.

The recent spat between the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, is evidence of the ongoing controversial dilemma.

Mr Hammarberg, who had visited the detention and open centres in Malta in March, expressed “very serious concern”.

He described the detention centres as “inadequate”, criticised the asylum application process and found fault with the detention policy implying it was slow and irreconcilable.

The Home Affairs Ministry begged to differ. Without mincing its words, the ministry found Mr Hammarberg’s suggestions “not feasible”. The Maltese government believes the centres are a “necessity”.

The ministry went on to add that, notwithstanding its limitations, Malta was doing its best to cope with the re-emergence of the immigration flow exacerbated by the political turmoil in North Africa, especially in Libya where agreements with Italy for joint patrols have irrevocably broken down. (Some form of agreement is now in place with the Benghazi authorities.)

The government defends its lengthy processing period highlighting the lack of cooperation shown on the part of detainees who frequently provide false information and miss scheduled appointments that could expedite the process. Clearly, on this issue there is a stalemate.

Within this context a few statistics are in order. Malta has, up to 2009, repatriated only 2,000 of the 12,000 individuals who arrived “irregularly” since 2002. In 2008, a total of 2,700 immigrants arrived on the island. and 98 per cent had applied for asylum status. That means that if one had to process all these in one year one would have to process about 50 applications a week!

Although the inflow subsided during the previous two years, the numbers have again exploded and, in the first few months of this year, the number has already reached 2,700.

Meanwhile, since 2007, only about 1,000 immigrants have been accepted in the 12 countries that have offered partial assistance. Among the most prominent were the United States, France and Germany.

A pilot project under the auspices of the EU has made arrangement for the transfer of about 400 refugees but the process is still in the making. Evidently, Malta needs concrete help not only to maintain these individuals but the attendant aid and legal processing that this situation entails. The recent opening of the European Office of Asylum in Malta is one concrete step forward in mitigating Malta’s workload.

Politically the issue is complex. The present Administration has made it clear it will do its best to respect the human rights of these individuals.

Europe must recognise that Malta is doing its utmost to react to the fast-moving events that predict a continued influx of immigrants, especially should the situation in Libya persist. There is no point for some to take the moral high ground lambasting Malta’s efforts in dealing with this crisis.

More so now when this is compounded with the strengthening of the Greek borders by Frontex following the crisis in Libya, leaving the central Mediterranean route once more as a popular alternative.

Sadly, there is also little consensus between our political parties. The Labour Party does not even have an actual policy on the subject, preferring to take a more populist stance and giving conflicting signals. As it continues to project itself as “progressive”, it steers clear from saying what the government should do in this situation for fear of alienating its core voter. One would have expected the “progressives” to be more altruistic and have a more no nonsense “internationalist” approach. Clearly, this is not forthcoming, especially with Joseph Muscat’s admiration for those Italian politicians who were expressing unsavoury comments about Malta and the immigrant situation in the Mediterranean.

In the meantime, it is abundantly clear that Malta must retain its detention policy in place. Admittedly, there is a human cost of detention and one that we can barely afford to ignore. There is no doubt that these restrictions compound the personal tragedies and trauma that many of these individuals have endured.

There is no magic formula to solve this massive problem in one fell swoop. Ideally, there would be no need for these individuals to be forced to leave their countries but, driven out as they are and arriving here with no future, they will seek shelter and the chance from the international community to rebuild their lives.

Nevertheless, the state must safeguard its citizens first and foremost and continue to do so through cohesive and comprehensive measures.

One would hope that as a nation with such strong values of solidarity, which led us to deplore acts of animal cruelty with such passion, we will, above all, show empathy with our fellow human beings and strive to ensure that dignity and rights are maintained wherever and whenever possible.

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