Gilbert Calleja - 06/06/2010
I am stopped at the gate. I give my particulars to the guard who cordially asks me to wait and starts a string of phone calls. I sit in my car and look around. The yellow cage-like fencing surrounding the open yards of the Safi detention centre has corroded significantly since my first visit in 2006 when the first ‘press tour’ was organized. Since then the site has seen numerous protests and ‘uprisings’ by the immigrant detainees complaining about the length of detention, the harsh conditions and treatment in the centre.
An army jeep comes towards me and I am escorted to the ‘Yellow house’ where the female immigrants are kept in a secluded area. Some quick formalities and the security guard opens the metal gate.
I am in a verandah enclosed in wire mesh. Four girls lounge on a mattress at the far end of the corridor while others pace back and forth doing all sorts of chores from hanging the laundry to the surrounding grille to clearing what remains of the breakfast; some stare back, some giggle, some frown. “Who are you? What do you want?”, asks one robust Nigerian girl before I even have time to take in my surroundings. She is wearing an oversized fur coat over jeans and a red t-shirt. The voice coming through the fake fluff is unmistakably hostile. The accompanying soldier intervenes and explains my business there. They agree that we should talk in the ‘TV room’.
The girls sit on the tables and I am left to sit alone at an uncomfortable distance. In an attempt to break the ice and ease the tension I ask the soldier to leave me alone with the fifteen or so girls sitting in front of me. On my left a shy group of Somalis, Eritreans and Ethiopians talk in between themselves, some trying to translate to the others in the group. Facing me are the Nigerians leading the group mainly because they can speak fairly good English. They refuse to tell me their names, age and country of origin. Most are visibly angry and irritated by my presence and I ask why. They explain that they recounted their stories to numerous journalists before me but their situation has not changed. They see no reason why they should be imprisoned. Some claim that they have been held in detention for over 16 months, others say that conditions in Libya were better off than in Malta. They remind me over and over again of the failure of the journalists who preceded me to change things.
“What kind of change are you talking about?” I ask. “Freedom! Open the gates – we are not criminals” I try to explain my helplessness and that these things are above me. They walk out on me leaving me to stare at my empty notebook. It had taken me almost six weeks of waiting until I was granted a one-hour visit to the centre. The girls gave me a piece of their mind in less than ten minutes.
Driving home my mind battled with disappointment and frustration to try understand this turn of events. My frustration fades away quickly as I put the girls’ silence into perspective.
There’s no comparison between my six weeks of waiting when compared to 16 months in detention after crossing land, desert and sea, leaving everyone and everything behind and risking it all to aspire for humanly acceptable living conditions. The vast majority of migrants leaving the North African shores towards Europe come from Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Ivory Coast, Nigeria and other countries where political instability, tribal and religious intolerance, conflict and misery are the order of the day.
My frustration fades as I put the girls’ decision to keep silent into perspective. Their silent protest raises the question of whether the Maltese or indeed the Europeans are addressing the migration issue properly. Does the EU understand the plight of the many refugees, asylum seekers or economic migrants who are reaching its shores? The EU has indeed shown little political will to help these people’s situation and instead, in 2003, Ghaddafi’s Libya was given 20 million euros to stop boats leaving its shores for Europe and to set up detention centres and repatriate would be migrants to their countries of origins. This has been extensively documented and denounced by journalists like Gabriele Del Grande and his blog Fortress Europe.
Irregular migration depends on two main factors: a continuous supply of desperate souls fearing for their lives and seeking to escape towards a better, more human condition and traffickers or passeurs. Unscrupulous people, gangs and organizations who know their way round the necessary power structures or who simply have the means to transport people across harsh terrains and borders and who are willing to take the risk.
A migrant’s point of departure might be very different as it depends from the situation from country to country. Some families save up for years to be able to pay the trip for one of its members to travel to Europe from where he will then be able to find a job and send money back to the rest of the family so they can eventually reach him. Others leave with what little possessions they might have especially when conflict and war come knocking at their doorstep and pose a serious threat to their lives.
All of this is extremely simple in theory. There is a demand and a supply to meet that demand but in practice the realities are much more complex and desperately tragic. In practice, thousands of people die, perish in the desert, dehydrate or drown over the Mediterranean. Those lucky enough to survive the journey are still very vulnerable to abuse and humiliation not to mention the psychological scars and traumas that haunt most of these surviving migrants.
Most migrants landing in Malta had never heard about this small island. A great majority are Somali migrants escaping a law-less country where warring clans and warlords set the rules. They land here after drifting aimlessly at sea for some days. Very often they have no idea what awaits them and most do not have identification papers.
They are registered upon landing, told their arrival is ‘illegal’ and then they ask for protection or political asylum. In the meantime they are kept in one of the four detention centres on the island. The backlog of cases filed in front of the Refugee Commission means that individuals have to wait for months until they have their first ‘interview’. The maximum period of detention is 18 months. After this they are often allowed temporary residence, some welfare benefits and a working permit.
Detention conditions in Malta, as in other parts of the Mediterranean, are harsh. The idea itself of keeping migrants in confinement has been denounced and repeatedly criticized by local NGOs and the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner and the Committee for the Prevention of Torture.
When migrants are released they either find lodging in one of the open centres set-up on the island or they try find alternative housing. Generally speaking African migrants in Malta live in abject poverty.
According to a report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance published in December 2007, “the Maltese authorities have implemented a policy of systematic detention of all such migrants, with negative consequences not only on the respect of the rights of the persons concerned but also on the perception of these people as criminals and the levels of racism and xenophobia among the general population. These perceptions have been sustained by a public, and notably political, debate around irregular immigration in which human rights and human dignity have generally not been in focus. Irregular immigration has also provided the platform for the development of organised right-wing extremist groups. Irregular migrants, asylum seekers, persons with humanitarian protection and refugees remain vulnerable to racial discrimination in accessing different services and to exploitation on the labour market, where they are predominantly employed illegally”.
(Pictures by Gilbert Calleja)