If it were not so serious a matter, the recent successive breakouts by illegal immigrants from the detention centres at Safi and Hal Far would be farcical. The ease with which a few dozen individuals have pushed down so-called security fencing and marched from the detention centres towards the airport unimpeded is a matter for concern. It undermines the core reason for having people held in such centres - their detention in a safe and secure environment while their applications for asylum are considered by the Commissioner for Refugees.

The only good thing to come out of these recent incidents is the commendable way in which the authorities - primarily the Armed Forces of Malta - handled the situation. They did so with restraint, pragmatism and common sense.

Despite all the talk since the national conference a year ago and the pressures on the EU for support, the resources allocated to dealing with the problem are still insufficient. It is as though government ministers recognise the seriousness of the crisis, but lack the political will to find the resources necessary to turn the situation around.

The way the fencing at these detention centres was constructed is indicative of the problem. Chicken wire was used, instead of proper steel mesh, possibly as an economy measure. Weakness of physical security has been compounded by lack of manpower deployed to the detention service - some 190 men made up of both police and military manpower dedicated to the guarding of, currently, about 1,100 detainees. Given the shift system, leave and sickness, the number of detention service personnel actually on duty at any one time is extremely thin on the ground.

There is an urgent need both to increase the number of personnel in the detention service and to invest greater capital expenditure to make the detention centres properly secure, for people on both sides of the fence. The government needs to give these issues the funding priority they deserve. The Times has called before for the recruitment and funding of the over-stretched AFM and the Police Force to be increased, and it does so again now in the light of these latest incidents. Must it take bloodshed on our streets and/or international shame to ram the message home?

The issue of illegal immigration, and the consequent social, cultural and economic pressures it creates, are matters too serious to be treated in this casual manner. In a few weeks' time the influx of illegal immigrants is likely to increase markedly and to swell the numbers of those already in detention. It would be foolhardy of the government not to act now while it has the chance.

The government can do this in three ways. First, a higher priority must be given to dealing with illegal immigration as a matter of policy. Secondly, more funding and manpower should be provided to improve security in the beleaguered detention centres. Thirdly, the rate at which the Commissioner for Refugees and the immigration authorities handle applications for asylum needs to be considerably speeded up.

The tensions and the anger manifested by those who tore down the fences and demonstrated in the streets stem in large part from the pent up frustration of waiting several months for their cases to be determined. While one can fully understand the difficulties faced by the Refugee Commissioner - the lack of documentation, the false claims and fabrications by asylum seekers - the process must be expedited so that those who qualify for asylum receive it and those who do not are repatriated.

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