I was on my way to work 10 years ago to date when I got a phone call to alert me that detained migrants at Safi were holding a protest. When I reached a dusty football ground, adjacent to the detention centre, I saw a group of migrants chanting ‘All we are saying is give us freedom’ to the tune of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance.
They had crossed the detention barriers and were refusing the soldiers’ orders to go back. I recall an asylum seeker telling me: “Why are the soldiers holding sticks? We don’t even want to escape.”
The migrants just couldn’t understand why they were being cooped up inside a detention centre when they had committed no crime.
Little did they know that their action would pave the way for a human rights crime committed by men who are meant to uphold the law. An hour or so later, the soldiers marched towards them, beating their shields with their truncheons in rhythm, and within minutes it was a painful cacophony of screams, protests and confusion.
At a point, up to six soldiers stood over a single floored protester while one beat him with a truncheon. Many of the detainees clutched their heads and wriggled on the ground in an attempt to protect themselves. Dozens of migrants were hospitalised.
But what was really shocking was the reaction and the aftermath. Many Maltese let their prejudices get the better of them and justified the force used, refusing to even acknowledge the shocking pictures taken by our photographer. If a Maltese man is holding down a black guy with a truncheon, then he must be right.
Within days, we witnessed a series of arson attacks and threats against NGOs and journalists who denounced the heavy-handedness.
It was not over. The subsequent inquiry into the Safi incidents was a major whitewash as it concluded that the force used to control the migrants during their protest was “justified in the circumstances”, even if it took note of the fact the force used by several soldiers was exaggerated.
When I was grilled by the judge tasked with carrying out the inquiry I recall feeling as though I was in the dock. The judge appeared to be more concerned with knowing the identity of who tipped me off about the protest rather than what I had witnessed.
But then again should we be surprised? For the last 14 years, we have been told by governments that the detention system is a must, even if it criminalises asylum seekers in the eyes of many.
In the last 10 years, we have seen deaths, suicides and more riots inside detention. We still see NGOs and journalists who analyse migration issues being threatened for doing their job. Because many of us still cannot differentiate between the terrorists that caused bloodshed in the streets of Paris last week and the asylum seekers fleeing the terror in their country. If he’s black, then he must be an Arab, and if he’s an Arab then he must be dangerous.
Ten years on, none of us should turn a blind eye to the horrible actions portrayed in the picture above.
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