The website of the Foundation for Social Welfare Services informs us that Alfred Grixti is an “educator by profession” and a fellow of the “prestigious Salzburg Seminar”. Bully for him. Unfortunately for us, he is also CEO of the foundation.
A few days ago there was a bit of a ruck in Buġibba’s unlovely square. A couple of young men got excited about something, as young men often do, and ended up throwing chairs and fisticuffs. They happened to be Syrian.
It was this last bit of information that made the educator-by-profession see redder than usual. He duly went on Facebook to demand that the men be repatriated at the earliest (‘Lura pajjiżhom illum qabel għada’). It was not acceptable, Grixti added, that they be allowed to harm Malta’s tourist industry.
The memo may not have reached Salzburg that most of the Syrians who live in Malta are not here on holiday. Rather, they are the result of a civil war that has left up to half a million people dead and up to two million wounded, and produced about 11 million refugees. According to the UNHCR, Syria was the country that accounted for the highest number of people who were granted international protection in Malta in 2016.
Now that does not mean that Syrians or people of any nationality who are granted international protection should be free to cause trouble at will. The usual standards of behaviour apply to them as to any other, which is why the police did well to arrest them. It does, however, mean that Grixti is not fit for purpose, for three reasons.
First, there is a big difference between bringing people to book, as the police did in this case, and sending them back to their country. That difference is particularly painful when the country of origin is in a state of civil war. To send people back to such a place is more or less a death sentence, which is why Malta granted them international protection in the first place.
No amount of broken bins and twisted chairs could ever justify such a vicious retribution. And, nourishing as the tourist industry may be, it certainly isn’t more important than the right to asylum and safety. It’s astonishing that Grixti, who heads the State agency that oversees social welfare of all things, doesn’t seem to understand this basic premise.
Second, Grixti’s job demands intelligence, a sensitivity to social welfare matters, and the ability to see the broader picture. Hortatory statements about sending people back to their country are the exact opposite. They’re the kind of foul-mouthed, ill-informed and uneducated popular reaction that’s typically distilled in the sewer of tabloid journalism.
Given his job, Grixti is expected to be sensitive to the social and political undercurrents that mark the lives of people of asylum-seeking nationalities generally
Now there is an outside chance that the Syrians in question were in Malta on holiday, or on a business trip, or to take part in a sunbed-eating competition – but that’s not the point. Given his job, Grixti is expected to be sensitive to the social and political undercurrents that mark the lives of people of asylum-seeking nationalities generally. That’s what I mean by the broader picture.
Besides, Grixti’s tirade says a lot about him and his thoughts and beliefs. Such coarse outbursts do not just happen spontaneously, and especially not when they are made in writing, in public. (This is not something one says, and regrets a second later.) Rather, they are the symptoms of a slow-cooked xenophobia – not an admirable quality for a social welfare captain to have.
Third, “persons holding positions in the public sector, which aims to serve all persons… should refrain from making statements which may contradict the very essence of public service”. This is the last sentence of a formal opinion by Renée Laiviera, the Commissioner for the Promotion of Equality.
The occasion was a complaint I made to the Commission in 2015 about Charles Azzopardi, a family therapist who was then (and possibly is now) a paid consultant to the Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity. Azzopardi had written on Facebook (sigh) that “Jews are the real terrorists. Wherever they go there is bloodshed and war.” (“Il-Lhud huma t-terroristi veri. Fejn ikun hemm huma dejjem jinxtered id-demm u l-ġlied.”)
The reason I complained had nothing to do with political correctness, nor was it an attempt at policing public opinion. Rather, I made the case to the Commission that there was the mother of all conflicts between Azzopardi’s public office as a consultant on social solidarity, and his openly anti-Semitic views. In other words, that this was a case of the Pied Piper running a kindergarten and getting paid handsomely for it.
His reply of sorts was that he was not anti-Semitic, that he had two sons called Isaac and Jeremy, and that I was a clown (but not a racist clown). The Commissioner is statutorily limited to opinions, and Azzopardi got away with it. Still, the last sentence of Laiviera’s opinion is fundamental.
It is also bang on in the case at hand. What Grixti thinks (not much, probably) is of no issue to me. If he believes that international protection should be withdrawn at the drop of a hat, so be it. Problem is, he skippers the State agency for social welfare. That role, which is funded by and accountable to the public, is incompatible with views that belong at a xenophobes’ majjalata.
It is not enough for a Social Solidarity Ministry spokesperson to have said that “the language used does not reflect the Ministry’s belief and the work it carries out”. The language used should reflect the ministry’s belief. Grixti is the CEO, not a beadle.
Forget l-aqwa fl-Ewropa (the best in Europe). If those who employ him had any sense of public decency and accountability, Grixti would be sent packing. Who knows, he might wish to join the PN leadership race and give Frank Portelli a run for his money.
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