The journalists reminded the government “that the role of a free press is instrumental in any functioning democracy and that these constraints can and will be construed as directly undermining the principles of democracy and human rights, despite the fact that these principles are guaranteed by Malta's Constitution.”
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The Malta Labour Party spokesman for Justice and Home Affairs, Gavin Gulia, whose position on “irregular immigration” are very similar to those of Minister Tonio Borg, has backed the journalists on this issue: “If I were Tonio Borg,” he told The Times, I would give journalists access to detention centres at all times and in all circumstances." His only condition would be that the journalists reported “faithfully and in a balanced manner.”
“We want Freedom”
On January 13, 2005, the issue of detention finally got the kind of media attention it had been sorely missing. A peaceful protest by about 80 immigrants from countries including the Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sudan, Congo, Pakistan, Palestine, and Somalia, at the Ħal Safi detention centre was broken up by a large number of soldiers in anti-riot gear. Photos and reports published in the conservative independent daily The Times of Maltese soldiers beating the immigrants who were singing popular peace songs shocked many of those who saw them and brought about the immediate reaction of local and international NGOs. The Prime Minister, Lawrence Gonzi, ordered an inquiry into the incident led by Mr Justice Franco Depasquale. Reports also appeared in the foreign press, including a short news item in Friday 14 January edition of Italy’s Il Manifesto.
In a strongly-worded statement released by Amnesty International on Thursday 13 January featured prominently on its website, http://www.amnesty.org/, the organization called for “a prompt, thorough and impartial investigation” into reports that members of the Maltese armed forces had “subjected scores of asylum-seekers and unauthorized migrants to physical assault resulting in numerous injuries.”
Amnesty International had repeatedly expressed concern about the situation of asylum-seekers and unauthorized migrants in Malta and the government’s policy of mandatory detention for all asylum-seekers entering the country. AI had also expressed concern about severe delays in the decision-making process regarding asylum applications; lack of transparency in the appeals process; frequent failure to keep asylum-seekers properly informed of their rights and the progress of their applications; their frequent lack of access to appropriate legal advice; conditions of detention which fall below international standards, and lack of adequate and appropriate training for members of the armed forces and police, in charge of the daily running of detention facilities for aliens.
A month after the Ħal Safi protest turned sour, Mr. Walter Irvine, the representative of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees for Italy and Malta, arrived in Malta to assist the authorities in integrating refugees and to discuss possible solutions to the problem of the detention of migrants. Mr. Irvine told The Times that some of the conditions he had seen were “substandard” and that what concerns him was the “length of detention, which together with the degree of uncertainty,” seemed to “accumulate frustration and can periodically lead to difficulties."
Mr. Irvine acknowledged, however, that he had seen a “genuine concern by the authorities to try and upgrade the centres in which these people are being held. There's a tendency to recognise that some of the conditions cannot be maintained."
The detailed report of the shameful Ħal Safi incidents written by journalists Herman Grech and Massimo Farrugia in The Times (with photos by Alfred Giglio) and similar reports in Maltese on the website of the media organization of the conservative party in government and one of its newspapers, In-Nazzjon, by Karl Stagno Navarra left little room for interpretation about the sequence of events that led to some 27 immigrants and 2 soldiers being admitted into hospital with various injuries, including fractures and cuts that at least in one case required a large number of stitches.
The headlines in The Times of Friday 14 January read, “Immigrants beaten in peaceful protest.” The report claimed that the soldiers “beat” the detainees with truncheons when the migrants refused to return to their barracks. It was a “15-minute, one-sided scuffle.” The soldiers, “in the presence of superiors,” charged at the migrants, “egged on by other personnel who lined the fence.” The report stated that “some of the soldiers looking on could be heard urging their colleagues to be heavy-handed with the protesters.” Comments included "Smash those blacks' faces in" and "Hit him in the head." Stagno Navarra reported that when the order to charge the asylum seekers was given, the Commander of the Armed Forces of Malta, Brigadier Carmel Vassallo was present.
The charge was so strong, wrote Stagno Navarra, that immediately after the initial charge one could see a number of injured people on the ground with blood flowing from the head. In the meantime, “voices could be heard shouting, “Beat them! Beat them!” as well as racist and contemptuous comments referring to the colour of the immigrants. In the meantime, the hands of other immigrants were tied, they were forced to lie down with their faces on the ground and dragged to the detention centre. Others lay unconscious on the ground.”
To add insult to injury, the Jesuit Refugee Service, who are well known in Malta for their work with the immigrants, “protested that they were not being allowed to visit the immigrants in hospital.” Once again, journalists were not allowed to get nowhere near the injured immigrants in hospital.
“When the gate closes behind me”
Photo:The Times, by Alfred Giglio
The issue of the lengthy detention of immigrants in Malta, mainly boat people from conflict zones in sub-saharan Africa, has been raised repeatedly by non-governmental organizations like the local Jesuit Refugee Service but the authorities have refused to mend their ways.
At a seminar held recently at the University of Malta, Dr. Ruth Farrugia, a lecturer in the Faculty of Laws who also advises immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees on their rights, said that whilst in Malta, many immigrants stay in detention for 18 months, in other Western European countries, the maximum duration of detention is far less than that. Detention in Germany can last up to six months, but in other countries like France, Italy and the United Kingdom, it is much shorter than that.
“When the gate closes behind me every time I enter the Ħal Safi detention centre,” writes CV, one of the few persons who has permission to enter these centres. “I know I have entered another world. A world which is hidden away from the public eye and which can thus be conveniently ignored.”
CV told me that the immigrants are well aware of this and that is precisely why they organized the January 13 protest. Journalists who witnessed the beatings were clearly shocked and this must have prompted people in the local press to take the long overdue stand on the vital issue of public access to the detention centres. CV told me that after paying a “high price” for their initiative to raise awareness about their plight, “they are waiting for justice. They are hopeful that in a democratic European country, justice will be done.” They are aware, however, that “facts tend to be twisted in a way that changes the balance of events” and this clearly worries them.
In recent weeks, the Sunday newspaper It-Torċa, published by Malta’s largest trade union, while focusing on the difficult, often unappreciated work that the army and police have been asked to carry out to manage the detention centres, has not been very sympathetic towards the plight of the detained immigrants. Its sister daily, L-Orizzont, practically ignored the serious events at Ħal Safi in the days immediately following the protest and the beatings. But on Sunday 23 January, ten days after the event, It-Torċa published an aggressive article with an loaded title, “Klandestini Jaħilfu Vendetta” (“The Clandestine Immigrants Vow to take their Revenge”), giving what it presented as the soldiers’ side of the story.
The very long article with images of rudimentary pointed weapons that it claimed were made by the immigrants or found in their possession after the incidents (stating categorically that the immigrants had meant to use against the soldiers) gave a version of events that somehow contradicts what appeared in the video footage of the incidents and in the photos published in other papers. The following Sunday the same paper published a long, highly offensive letter by a reader who made a string of racist comments about African people and immigrants in general and stated in no uncertain terms that Malta should have never signed international treaties that protect the rights of refugees.
Similar opinions about Malta’s right to deal with immigrants the way it deemed fit without any interference from the UNHCR or any similar organization have also appeared in The Times and other media. However, the same issue of It-Torċa also carried an angry article by the Deputy Secretary General of the Union, Mr. Emmanuel Micallef, entitled “Insara Razzisti” (Racist Christians). “Instead of showing off our hospitality and our Christian values,” he wrote, “we let sentiments of superiority, fervent racism and unlimited intolerance come to the fore.”
The media and the government have played a major role in forming public opinion on issues related to immigration. Even Malta Today, the Sunday paper that has published some enlightened analyses, has published articles with titles highlighting how much immigrants “cost us” every day without giving its readers a breakdown of how the money is actually spent. A Maltese conservative MP, Mr. Franco Galea, has gone down a similar path: "Some things are deeply disturbing the Maltese population. Such as the fact that some of these immigrants are costing the country about Lm80 a week per capita. Much more then, let us say, the average Maltese father earns to rear his children. These immigrants are finding all sorts of commodities for free without having to work for them when we have skilled Maltese workers whose skills we are not being put to use.”
His speech in Parliament was reproduced in a letter published on Saturday January 29 in The Times. “I am no racist,” he is reported to have said, “but first and foremost in this Parliament my duty lies towards my country and its people, as I have taken an Oath of Loyalty towards them. Therefore I am obliged to relay here the feelings and the message of the patria.”
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Another problem over the past few weeks has been that many articles have failed to distinguish between the incidents themselves on one hand, with their dramatic combination of “gratuitous violence” and racist insults, and the complex issue of immigration, detention, basic human rights and the rights of asylum seekers on the other. The whole issue of “irregular immigration,” as it is now being called, was meant to be discussed at a so-called “national conference” held behind closed doors almost a month after the Ħal Safi incidents, but it was not a national conference. NGOs claimed that it was stage-managed by the government in order to avoid the real, everyday thorny issues and hijacked by people who do not have first-hand experience of the situation and its victims. The press, however, limited itself to reporting the objections of NGOs on the conference and conducted no indepth investigation into how it was organized.
I spoke to Dr. Harry Vassallo, one of the invited speakers at the conference who had only recently been granted permission to visit the detention centres, about the press and what happened at the Ħal Safi centre. In the aftermath of the incidents, Malta Today had claimed that the Establishment had used the fact that an inquiry had been ordered by the Prime Minister to abort any attempt by the public to pass judgement on what had happened and those who were responsible for the violent end to the protest. In a short statement that may have gone largely unnoticed, the Catholic Church, through its Justice and Peace Diocesan Commission, expressed its preoccupation over the commitment Malta has towards protecting the human dignity of foreigners kept in detention centres. But the two main political parties had failed to condemn the way the immigrants had been beaten. Unlike Alternattiva Demokratika, the small Maltese Green Party, they had also refused to take part in a popular television programme that discussed the incidents and showed video footage of what had happened because they claimed that they could not take a position before the inquiry had been completed and the results made public. Dr. Harry Vassallo, chairperson of AD disagrees:
“As far as I know there are no pending judical proceedings on the Ħal Safi incidents so what happened cannot be sub judice.” The inquiry ordered by the Prime Minister is “an administrative investigation,” he said. “I deeply resent the idea of not expressing a judgement on any event until an inquiry report is published. Having lived through times when the state was the principal violator, I am convinced that reserving judgement until later only serves to let people off the hook. Sometimes it is very difficult to express an opinion and one must be prudent, but having met a man with a broken jaw who has lost all his lower teeth [a reference to one of the asylum seekers injured during the Ħal Safi protest debacle], I cannot wait for a judge to tell me that something is very wrong. I feel that prudence in such cases heaps injury on the victims by denying them solidarity when they need it most.”
Dr. Vassallo then referred to the fact that unlike most other people, including journalists, he had had the opportunity to see for himself the conditions in the detention centres and he was outraged. “Our complacency, our denial in wanting to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt has become a very real menace. It appears that most people do not realise the long term implications of maintaining such a system of degrading treatment. This will not simply go away or be forgotten.”
Dr. Vassallo argued that “this is not a case of petty oppression which we all experience in dealing with our government and which we promptly forget as soon as we finally get what we are after. To be treated worse than animals is a deeply traumatic experience which will never be forgotten by the victims, their friends and their families. It will be a historic burden we will have to bear forever. I just want to be sure that I establish my objection now and not wait to join the chorus in apology many years hence.”
Imprisoned in terribly crowded conditions
CV told me that the asylum seekers want the Maltese to “understand that they are not criminals, that 18 months imprisoned in terribly over-crowded conditions is far too long, that this country (contrary to many of its citizens' belief) is not doing its duty.” “Dishing out plates of cold pasta to the immigrants every day” falls well-short of our us fulfilling our international obligations towards them as human beings and asylum seekers.
Apart from what happened during “a peaceful protest in a democratic country,” CV also spoke about the fear of “living in a country where the army, which should be there to protect us, chooses to use this brutal force. If I'm taking part in a demonstration, how can I trust the authorities to manage the situation?”
“What is hindering the Government or the people of Malta from making the necessary step of recognizing that these people can be part of our society, that they are not dangerous beings that ‘should not be left to roam the streets,’ that they suffer whole months of unjust imprisonment without trial, that they are above all human beings?”