Solidarity before populism

I recently formed part of a Green party delegation that visited the detention centre at Safi, which hosts irregular immigrants. We asked to visit the place after the riots that had taken place earlier this year.

We were warmly welcomed by the authorities that run the venue. Col Brian Gatt, who heads the centre, gave us a presentation and guided us around the place together with other officials.

We had the opportunity to talk to some of the detained migrants who are hosted in the so-called Block B. However, we did not visit the section known as the “warehouse”, which, as the name apparently suggests, is characterised by more overcrowding.

Judging by what I saw in Block B, I must admit that the situation is not as bad as I had thought it would be, even though, in the final analysis, we are still talking about a detention centre. There were some things that I was not aware of.

For example, recognised non-governmental organisations have access to the detention centre. Those that visit range from human rights NGOs to religious movements, including those of minority faiths in Malta.

Educational courses are given to the detainees, though I was not pleased to hear that those wanting to receive such education are handcuffed while walking to the venue in question. According to some detainees we spoke to, such treatment is degrading and leading to lack of attendance to such courses.

It must, however, be noted too that there were cases of detainees escaping in such situations and this led to more problems and sensationalism, especially by certain scaremongers within civil society and the press.

Other existing challenges include those related to language use, the plurality and diversity of ethnic groups that are not always compatible, vandal acts carried out by some and logistical problems related to the fact that the venue was not designed to be a detention centre.

Medical assistance exists on a 24-hour basis Those in a vulnerable state or who are in particular situations, for example children, the elderly and parents who arrived in Malta with their children, are immediately freed from detention if they are given medical clearance. These are transferred to open centres.

What struck me most from this visit was that the common appeal of the detainees to have a shorter detention period. I was moved when some of them expressed their gratitude to the fact that the Maltese armed forces saved them at sea. However, they pleaded for shorter detention periods.

Each detainee we met had a story to tell, a particular account amid a universality of misery and search for a better life. Their stories confirmed one of my maxims of life, that to live is to hope.

There are about 600 irregular immigrants in detention centres in Malta and many of them had their request for asylum refused. In such cases, such persons cannot be kept in detention for more than 18 months and, depending on the case, one remains in Malta or is sent back to one’s country if documentation exists and if the country is not declared as being in a dangerous state. On the other hand, immigrants who are granted asylum are detained for a maximum of 12 months.

While a short period of detention would be required for reasons such as the establishment of one’s identity and security, on the other hand, long detention periods are inhumane and can be counter-productive. In such situations, anxiety, stress and tension can flourish among detainees and officials. Besides, long detention periods are not practical for financial reasons.

A six-month maximum detention period should be more than enough for observation and security reasons and more humane and financially-viable alternatives can be found. These include obligatory signing at police stations and compulsory health tests. Should one fail to meet with such requirements one would be sent back to detention. This would add a dimension of personal responsibility for one’s freedom.

Malta should give more importance to the humanitarian realities of immigrants through a policy that matches rights with responsibilities and which gives asylum rights to those who require them.

A sustainable integration policy should be universalist in scope, yet should consider immigrants as individuals with particular realities. For example, policies aiming to develop the capabilities of immigrants should be given the priority they deserve. The implementation of such polices should not simply be a top-down diktat but should rather be characterised by communication and input from all stakeholders, not least immigrants themselves.

In this respect, the European Greens have called for full respect of human rights of immigrants, for responsibility sharing within the European Union, for changes within the Dublin Convention and for more attention to the situations of small island states.

To the contrary, xenophobic populists aim to disperse politics of hate and of egoistic nationalism. Such politics propose the direct opposite of responsibility sharing and, therefore, are more harmful not only to immigrants but also to small islands like Malta.

AD believes that, in the name of transparency, the media should have full access to detention centres. Immigrants who leave the detention centres should be given full work permits to be employed in a legal manner.

This is a win-win situation as it would be combating the underground economy, the unfair exploitation of workers through cheap labour and would also result in more tax payments through legal employment.

In sum, our visit to Safi confirmed that in the politics of immigration one should take a side. The Green position might not be a net vote-winner in the Maltese political context, yet, for us, solidarity comes before cheap populism. We prefer to put forward proposals, which, though being challenging, will ultimately lead to more social inclusion and social justice.

May I wish a Happy Christmas and New Year to readers and staff of The Times and to their loved ones.

Mr Briguglio, a sociologist, is chairman and spokesman for economy and finance, Alternattiva Demokratika – the Green party.

January 23rd, 2011