After this newspaper called out Adrian Delia’s reprehensible rhetoric about resident foreigners and immigrants, he doubled down. Go and ask ordinary people for yourselves, he said. Good idea. To see why he’s wrong, you need to see where he’s right.

The Opposition leader speaks of a rising disorder and gradual territorial takeover of parts of various towns and villages, from Birżebbuġa to Marsalforn. He talks of dirt, noise, fights, danger to young girls, and ghettoes which could soon become no-go areas – “as has happened abroad”.

Here, “as has happened abroad”, we see a mainstream political party adopt the standard images of far-right discourse. Except that Delia isn’t simply copying European fellow travellers.

He really is reflecting an increasing popular resentment of foreign residents and immigrants. Maltese hostility, across divides of class and political party, is palpably rising.

Delia repeats another commonplace: Malta is too small for such population growth; good behaviour can’t make up for overcrowding.

The real problem here is that Delia is not listening closely enough to understand the dynamics of the dramatic everyday stories he hears. Unless he does understand but chooses not to show it.

What does it mean to listen closely to (say) a landlord who does not want to rent to Africans? Or to an elderly lady fretting about the south-east Asian men who have rented the flat above? Or the man fuming at his Arab neighbours? It means seeing that the underlying cause is not necessarily racism.

The wariness about renting out to Africans? It’s based on the reasonable suspicion that they may be so underpaid that they will have to share their flat with a larger number of de facto tenants than the landlord agrees to. If he has a problem, the law would back him, but in practice the court case will take too long.

Is the landlord stereotyping Africans? Yes, but he’s also stereotyping Maltese employers and has clearly no faith in the Maltese justice system. He is just trying to manage the risks on his own because he can’t trust the authorities.

The fretting elderly lady, who lives on her own, will tell anyone who’ll listen what the problem is. It’s not south-east Asians. She’s afraid of sharing the building with young, single men in general, particularly when they’re one too many in a flat. They party, they’re rowdy, they’re up at all hours; they let other strangers into the building, so you can never tell if someone you meet in the stairwell is to be trusted or not.

Adrian Delia is not listening closely enough to understand the dynamics of the dramatic everyday stories he hears- Ranier Fsadni

She’d think the same thing if her new fellow tenants were testosteronic young Swedes or, indeed, Maltese out to have fun away from the watchful eye of their families. Her problem isn’t race. It’s rising crime rates and widely reported stories of elderly people robbed by people – Maltese as well as foreigners – they let in on trust.

No more racist is the middle-aged man who is fuming because his car has been damaged by his Arab neighbour, who accidentally reversed his car into it. Then he finds the neighbour is not insured, and that the neighbour borrows the car from a co-national, who lends it to half a dozen others, all uninsured – with the apparent collusion of the insurer.

And when our man calls the police station, he’s given the well-meaning advice not to do anything about it because he’d have to pay for the court costs himself. At which point it’s clear the kindly policeman is not going to visit the neighbour. The man explodes. The Arab is the target. But what has happened needed the collusion of one Maltese insurer, the fatalism of a policeman and the lumbering justice system.

And on it goes. A lot of what people are reporting, and that Delia is repeating, doesn’t happen because of ‘barranin’ [foreigners] alone.

Crowded living quarters send people outside into public spaces. Some of the tensions have more to do with the aggression of young males, thrust together in the same space, irrespective of ethnicity. Paceville experienced some of the same problems long before the recent spurt of population growth. And, before that, Strait Street.

Some of the establishments where these problems break out seem to operate in the penumbra of the law. Who knows, maybe it’s the real core business, not the official front, nor the ethnicity, that lies behind the fights and dangers.

And then there are the Maltese institutions, both failing and collusive, suffering from trust deficits.

One reason is that the ‘imperative’ of economic growth doesn’t just mean importing labour. It also means investment in the social infrastructure to make sure communities can manage change. Otherwise you get what economists call externalities: profits going to private pockets, while social and environmental costs are borne by others.

There’s another reason. You could put a stop to labour importation tomorrow, and put all irregular immigrants on a fleet to Libya, and still be faced with disorder of the kind identified by Delia.

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The rowdy restaurant operating in a residential street will continue to make it noisy and filthy – because it has the right connections. A contract will remain not quite as binding, in practice, because of the costs of slow litigation. The streets will continue to be full of mad drivers and, when the meter-reader rings, the elderly will still be nervous.

So yes, Delia is speaking of real problems. Seeing ethnicity as one component of complex problems isn’t racist. But he speaks as though he sees only one dominant cause: foreigners.

He ignores the many stories of law-abiding, hard-working foreigners and immigrants. He claims he wants all foreigners to be treated well, but then speaks in a way that could provoke dangerous hostility to all foreigners and immigrants.

A responsible leader would show people he has understood their problems and then throw better light on them. Instead, Delia fans the flames.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

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