If history is in the eye of the beholder, then there are innumerable ways to see and to struggle with the events that took place a week ago at the Ħal Far tent village.

What is clear, however, is that these events have called Malta to a crossroads, to undertake an urgent reassessment of the ways in which this country receives and responds to the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers.

Monday’s theatre of power, that saw a steady flow of riot police enter the open centre in the aftermath of the incident on Sunday, serves as a clear reminder that the government and people of Malta are still a long way from finding an effective and dignified response to increasing numbers of asylum seekers who, even if only temporarily, call the Maltese islands their home.

Our front page story today reporting claims that those arrested faced prison mistreatment is shocking. It is clear that these particular issues have been fomenting for decades. Taken together, they point to a systemic breakdown in the way governments, across party lines, have attempted to confront the complex issue of migration.

The explosion of vitriolic hate speech following the riots, splashed across social media and insinuating itself within public discourse, is a cause for serious concern. Certainly, the government’s commitment to address the criminal dangers of hate speech is commendable. It is hoped that effective implementation of this strategy will receive appropriate investment in resources and training, though it did not bode well to hear the Home Affairs Minister saying the authorities will not be going through every comment on social media and embark on “a witch-hunt and flood our courts”. We are yet to see the authorities start clamping down on hate speech.

It would also be remiss not to express solidarity with the individuals working in AWAS and other government entities, under incredible strain and in difficult conditions. Their situation is further evidence of a system that is broken and demands a re-evaluation of our national response to the plight of refugees and asylum seekers.

One particular concern raised by the incident at the open centre is the precarity being faced by an already vulnerable group, namely, the lack of protection being afforded to migrating children and young people in Malta.

Without effective coordination between ministries, in particular the Home Affairs Ministry and the minister responsible for children, child migrants will continue to fall through the gaps in a system that is proving itself consistently incapable of securing their best interests. Supporting unaccompanied children means having functional asylum processes in place.

As things stand, following disembarkation, unaccompanied children are being detained alongside adults. There is evidently a lack of professionally-trained personnel to carry out age assessment in a dignified way, which affords these children their legal protection, and there are no strategies that focus on the inclusion of such children in Maltese society, through fostering initiatives and other measures.

Media reports say at least two children were in the tent village and are now held in preventative custody.

Activists present during Monday’s police intervention report that these children were among the individuals who were cuffed with cable-ties, bundled into vans, and removed. The question must be asked, what where those children doing in the open centre in the first place? Why were they not attending school, like their Maltese peers?

The open letter issued to government by over 80 University of Malta academics makes it clear that there is an urgent need for the integration of child protection strategies, which recognise that all children under the age of 18 require protection. Respect for the rights of the child, as enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, is fundamental to the healthy functioning of any society that sees itself as humane and oriented towards the common good.

It is impossible to condone violence, including the destruction of property that took place last Sunday. Yet, such incidents do not occur in a vacuum.

They are part of a broader context that includes lack of attention to migrants’ living conditions, to the working conditions of AWAS and NGO representatives, and an alarming rise in nativistic, authoritarian, and populist rhetoric in Malta’s public discourse. European solidarity with border states is an urgent priority to pragmatically address the challenges.

However, safeguarding the humanity of this nation falls squarely in our hands. If the riot is the catalyst for a deep-rooted re-assessment of national strategies, that have failed refugees and asylum seekers, most especially children, then some good may yet rise from the ashes.

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