She has seen through important legal reforms such as the Civil Unions Bill and now she has sets her sights on the establishment of a Human Rights Commission. During the week that marks World Refugee Day, Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli tells Caroline Muscat it is time that realities in Malta are accepted.
When soldiers and police officers take to social media to rant against ‘immigrants’ in patriotic terms, Civil Liberties Minister Helena Dalli says this is not in line with government policy.
But rather than encourage disciplinary action against these officials, she prefers a path that avoids confrontation.
She wants to avoid reinforcing entrenched positions and it is also a matter of priorities, she says.
“Are we going to police everyone? We need to dissociate ourselves from such comments, provide the necessary education, create the structures necessary for remedial action and be proactive in addressing the issues that are a concern.
“We should show the way in a peaceful manner rather than creating confrontation and increasing agitation between those who are for and against. We are a divided nation – we are always for or against something in this country but generally reality sits somewhere in the centre,” Dr Dalli says.
In a report on Malta in October, the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the Council of Europe’s independent human rights monitoring body, reiterated its recommendation to Maltese authorities “to provide regular training to all those involved in the criminal justice system on criminal law provisions in force against racism and racial discrimination”.
Dr Dalli agrees the best way to address racism and xenophobia is through education and training across social sectors, and she says it is the political class that should be the first to set an example.
“It is important that people speaking on behalf of the government show that moderation and acceptance are the way forward.
“Confrontation and insults are not. Often our emotions take over and we talk before we think,” Dr Dalli says.
This refers to the recent controversy surrounding former tourism minister Joe Grima, now the Prime Minister’s special envoy to the World Tourism Organisation.
On Facebook, Mr Grima described human rights organisation Aditus as “cultural rapists” for daring to suggest that migrant residents should be granted the right to vote and stand in local elections.
He later said that his comments were driven by his concerns after he had heard that many tourist bookings in Sicily were being cancelled because of the arrival of thousands of immigrants.
His Facebook page, which bears his official title as special envoy, carries a banner with the words Malta Maltija (Malta for the Maltese), while describing a jailed migrant as “bicca mbarrazz” (trash) that the country now has to spend money feeding. He calls this “a monument to multiculturalism and integration”.
So when Dr Dalli talks about the political class setting an example, it is put to her that perhaps the government should consider cleaning up its own house first.
She explains: “By nature, I don’t like confrontation. His comments were removed immediately and the government disassociated itself. I think that then the person understands that this is not the way to go.
“Perhaps some other people wanted blood. I don’t want blood. I want more understanding. I believe that we need to continue working hard to respect everyone’s dignity.”
One of the tools she plans to put in place to achieve that is a Human Rights and Equality Commission that would be on a par with the Ombudsman’s Office.
“We will be widening the remit of the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE) based on the Paris Principles and therefore the new Human Rights and Equality Commission will be completely independent from the government,” Dr Dalli says.
“The NCPE is autonomous at this point, but it does not enjoy the independence that the Office of the Ombudsman enjoys.”
The Paris Principles establish that human rights institutions must have a broad mandate, be independent from government and guaranteed by the Constitution.
I believe that we need to continue working hard to respect everyone’s dignity
They ensure the pluralist representation of society, and demand that sufficient resources are given to enable it to fulfil its remit, among other things.
Dr Dalli says the Human Rights Commission will not report to the government, but to Parliament, as a guarantee of its independence.
The minister aims to have it set up before the end of the year but she could not yet provide further details, such as how the Commission will be financed – another key criterion for its independence.
She says these decisions have not yet been taken because a consultation process is ongoing: “A White Paper will be issued. After we exhaust the consultative process we will be in a better position to specify how it will work.”
The idea of a human rights institution was flagged by the Ombudsman last year.
So Dr Dalli is asked why government prefers to set up a separate Commission rather than strengthen the Ombudsman’s Office – one that already enjoys the public’s trust and is informally recognised as the country’s human rights institution.
Would it not make sense to strengthen an independent authority that is already set up, rather than create another one?
“We felt that it should be separate, also so that we could give it more importance.
“The Ombudsman deals more with issues related to public administration whereas the Human Rights Commission would be more focused on human rights.
“I believe there should be a separation and there are other countries where such a commission is set up in this way,” Dr Dalli insists.
For the Human Rights Commission to be on a par with the Ombudsman’s office, its head must be appointed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament. The same would apply for his or her removal from office.
The individual appointed would be empowered to choose staff and experts, and administer its own budget approved by Parliament.
All are critical factors in ensuring its independence from government influence.
“It is always important to have a watchdog ensuring human rights are not breached. The Commission will also give advice and raise any human rights breaches that may occur.”
Dr Dalli says it is important that “we enhance people’s quality of life – all people who live in this country”.
“To achieve that you need to ensure that people’s rights and dignity are respected.
“Nobody chooses how or where to be born so every individual should have his or her fundamental rights respected,” she adds.
She admits she is not pleased with figures in a recent survey by the University Students’ Council (KSU) that showed that more than a third of university students are not willing to share their campus with irregular immigrants.
She says the figures seem high and she hopes the study’s methodology is wrong, meaning the numbers would not reflect reality: “If these figures are accurate, they continue to reinforce my belief that our work with young children is a step in the right direction.
“If we follow these children through a longitudinal study, I hope that we will find that these perceptions among university students will change.”
It is not about tolerance, she says, but an acceptance of reality: “We need to accept each other’s realities. We need to look at how we work together, study together, live together and grow as a nation.”
Together with Education Minister Evarist Bartolo, her focus is to increase inclusion in the early school years: “We are even looking at school books and challenging stereotypes so that they can start to question the status quo because there isn’t just one reality.”
Dr Dalli hopes that they can help adults change misperceptions: “Young children’s thoughts are pure. They do not really create a distinction among themselves but it is when they go home to adults that they may hear different arguments.
“We are focusing on schools because we hope that even when these children go back home their parents can unlearn perceptions that are misplaced.”
She admits that changing laws to address inequality and discrimination is the easy part of the job. The greater challenge is to change perceptions and cultural attitudes.
When pressed on whether she is concerned about the racist element in Maltese society, she says she understands such sentiments stem from concerns.
“I also understand those who feel threatened. When we speak about precarious work, and conditions of employment, you are helping the situation because there is a sector of the population that feels threatened that foreigners will take their work because they are prepared to work for lower wages.”
By addressing conditions of employment, the government is creating a level playing field, according to Dr Dalli.
“We need to address the concerns fuelling these fears. Employment is one very important concern, whether real or perceived.”
She says the government has made important inroads “although there is much that is yet to be done”.
It is important that people speaking on behalf of the government show that moderation and acceptance are the way forward
But she is encouraged by the fact that only a few employers are exploiting workers, while the majority are keen to operate professionally.
The Malta Council for Economic and Social Development offers a platform where unions, employers, government and civil society can come together to debate and address the issue.
Employment and education are the main pillars on which an integration strategy should be based, Dr Dalli says.
“These are the two issues we are focusing on most. I stress that we need to address certain injustices that Maltese citizens feel are increasing because of policies that are not sufficiently addressing their concerns. We need to see the source of the anger.”
Part of that anger may be driven by the misperception that all irregular migrants are economic migrants.
It was World Refugee Day on Friday, dedicated to raising awareness of the situation of refugees throughout the world.
The number of refugees, asylum seekers and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post World War II era, exceeded 50 million, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR.
This massive increase was driven mainly by the war in Syria, which at the end of last year had forced 2.5 million people into becoming refugees and made 6.5 million people internally displaced.
The figures prompted the UN High Commissioner of Refugees Antonio Guterres to say: “We are seeing here the immense cost of not ending wars, of failing to resolve or prevent conflict.”
Asked whether political discourse on asylum seekers couched in terms such as “invasion” and “burden” were fuelling fear, she admits it does not help.
But she says the government needs to send a message in international forums that the country cannot handle this alone.
“Within the international and European forums there is sometimes a need to talk in this way to show that we need help. We can’t say that we can do this on our own.
“We need to be realistic. We live on a small island and I believe that we can’t improve the quality of life of our citizens without addressing these concerns too.”
She points out other southern Mediterranean countries have a similar message: “We are not alone in using this language – southern Mediterranean countries, including Italy, speak in the same way because we believe that the EU can help our situation. We need to make our case too because we really do need this support.”
The idea that Malta is carrying the burden alone may fuel a sense of injustice that the EU has washed its hands of the island’s problems.
Last year, 24 boats arrived in Malta with 2,008 asylum seekers, the highest number since 2008 according to the NSO.
Yet, in the same year, EU member states granted protection to 135,700 asylum seekers, compared with 116,200 the previous year, Eurostat reported on Thursday.
Over 70 per cent were granted in five nations: Sweden (26,400), Germany (26,100), France (16,200), Italy (14,500) and the United Kingdom (13,400).
Granting protection to persecuted people is an international obligation. This is something Dr Dalli clearly respects.
As the Civil Liberties Minister, her views on government talk of a push-back of some Somali migrants last July are relevant.
“What concerns me is that it was not done. Sometimes a certain kind of language needs to be used, but the important thing for me is that it did not happen; and I don’t believe it was going to happen.”
We are focusing on schools because we hope that even when these children go back home their parents can unlearn perceptions that are misplaced
Even if this is what she has to say, Dr Dalli’s role is an important one.
Her ministry is preparing to launch a website dedicated entirely to migrant integration providing essential information from entry and residence requirements to education and accommodation.
As part of a project with the International Organisation for Migrants (IOM), the website will also be accompanied by brochures in six languages including Arabic, Chinese and Russian.
This effort lays the ground for what IOM is calling a ‘one-stop shop’ where migrant needs are assisted.
Such efforts help to address inequality and human rights issues and are sorely needed.
But if the minister’s vision is to be achieved, the political class should follow her advice and make sure they lead by example.
Otherwise talk of “enhancing the quality of life of all people who live in the country” will only be the necessary antidote to continued injustice.
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