The government’s welfare services are predicting a steep increase in human trafficking reports over the next two years, in contrast with the relatively small number received last year.

This is because cases are currently underreported, according to the chief executive of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services, Alfred Grixti.

We are sure there is more and there is huge underreporting- Foundation CEO Alfred Grixti

The foundation’s annual report showed that last year the foundation received 18 reports of human trafficking.

They included six cases of labour exploitation – such as employers promising foreign workers a certain package but paying them peanuts once in Malta – as well as five allegations of sexual exploitation and four claims of domestic servitude. 

A typical case of domestic servitude would be employing a Filipino carer and retaining their documentation. 

“We are sure there is more and there is huge underreporting,” said Grixti.

He explained that human trafficking reports had dropped from 48 cases in 2018 and 2019 to 26 cases in 2020 and only 18 last year.

One factor behind the decline is that the COVID pandemic forced many foreigners to leave Malta.

Record use of social services

The annual report, released earlier this month, showed that in 2021 a record 21,490 people made use of social welfare services, marking an increase of over 12 per cent from the previous year. This was the highest number in over a decade.

Grixti explained that one had to consider the larger context when looking at the numbers. First of all, over the last decade, Malta’s population had increased by some 115,000 people with the majority being foreigners. “Apart from that we have an ageing population and, whereas in the past the foundation did not cater for services for the elderly, this changed over the past five years,” he said.

In 2021, 21 per cent of the foundation’s cases involved people over the age of 60. They made use of a range of services that, for example, handled domestic violence support, loneliness and homelessness. 

The increase in foreigners also impacted the caseload, with 15 per cent of cases being foreigners. The bulk are from the UK including Scotland and Wales (203), followed by Sudan (117), Libya (101), Italy (95) and Syria (32).

Falling into poverty

Another factor behind the rise in cases is the growing economy. This brought with it many benefits but also challenges, Grixti said. The increase in prices and cost of living has put more pressure on the most vulnerable. 

“Many fall into poverty because of unsustainable habits and addictions or because they do not know how to budget,” he said.

This was further exacerbated by the consumeristic society we live in, which puts pressure on everyone – including the vulnerable – to try to live a certain lifestyle.

He recounted the case of a woman who would send her children to school without lunch because she could not afford it and then it turned out she had bought her daughter an expensive phone “to be like her friends”.

An affluent society, he said, also brought with it a change in the drug of choice, now being cocaine. The foundation had received reports of people taking cocaine at baptisms and funerals. 

All this trickled down into other aspects of life – as increased drug use would, for instance, result in child neglect. The service provided to cocaine users has tripled, he said.

The report also showed a significant increase in cases referred to the Child Protection Services Directorate. A total of 3,025 cases were handled, marking an increase of 43 per cent over the previous year. 

Changes to the law that introduced mandatory reporting in 2020 may have impacted the sudden surge in numbers, he said.

Reports were made for a range of reasons, sometimes multiple, with most being physical abuse (587), neglect (491), emotional abuse (475) and sexual abuse (175).

More social workers needed

Funding for the foundation has increased from €7 million in 2012 to some €26 million in 2021. Funding for NGOs, with which the foundation works closely, has also increased.

While this was good, the foundation still faces a major challenge – the lack of human resources, according to Grixti.

At the moment the foundation employs nearly 1,000 people, including 300 social workers. But at least another 100 social workers were needed, he said.

However not enough people were choosing a career in social work as young people were opting for higher-paying jobs, he added. 

The foundation employs the bulk of new graduates each year but more needs to be done to reach out to school-age children and entice them towards this path, he said.

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