The breakthrough into the murder of a black African man confirms our worst fears: that this heinous crime was, as alleged in court, a racially motivated one. Except it was even worse. The two men charged with shooting Ivorian national Lassana Cisse and injuring two other migrants are also soldiers, with a duty to safeguard law and order and security in the land. They were also accused of a hit-and-run involving another migrant last February, an incident which went unnoticed until the Times of Malta flagged it after the fatal shooting.

This would be the first known racially motivated murder in Malta and the potential repercussions are alarming. Without going into the merits of the case, which appears to have been dealt with efficiently by the police, it is worth looking at how we got here in the first place.

The boats packed with desperate migrants that started landing in Malta at the turn of this century were at first greeted with general empathy or indifference. But as more boats landed, that attitude degenerated into xenophobia and the slippery slide into racism was well underway.

Fast forward a decade or so and speak to your neighbours, take a snapshot of your Facebook wall, walk about in the streets, search through readers’ comments on news portals and you will come across ample derogatory statements and disgraceful discourse on full display.

Just listen to politicians’ rhetoric trying to drum up cheap populist support – from Adrian Delia’s bull-in-a-china-shop way of raising the problem of integration to the irony of a Labour Party that once warned about biblical invasions and is now advocating the need for thousands more foreigners to keep the economy buzzing.

Just take note of the constant ill-use of terminology by the authorities in their public statements to realise how we are normalising stereotypes. No wonder it has come to this. Malta has a problem with racism. And we feel it must be called by its name, because the denial of racism and its attempted redefinition have become a central means for its legitimisation.

Of course, foreigners settling in Malta have a major responsibility to abide by the country’s laws and norms. And it is perhaps natural for people to view the unknown with a degree of suspicion: the foreign language, the strange culture, the manner of dress – especially when it has become the subject of vilification through sections of the media. However, blaming the country’s ills on foreigners is not only shortsighted but heralds the descent into racial hatred.

Many of us have become almost immune to the blanket of racist hate; some of us perceive it as unharmful or even funny. Tell that to the family of Lassana, to the black migrants who fear a repeat of the shooting or the Eastern Europeans who are perceived as nothing more than scroungers who break into our homes.

Blame this widespread reaction partly on the fact that successive administrations have failed to successfully tackle the issue of integration as more and more foreigners (that includes ‘white’ Europeans) have settled in Malta. Seismic changes in our economy, hardships in neighbouring countries and EU membership have changed the face of the island. The boom in Malta’s population needs to be better managed, with proper integration systems essential to avoid the creation of ghettoes and no-go areas. While it is fair to acknowledge the government’s initiatives to promote integration, the effort needs to be funnelled down much more effectively to the man in the street, to the child at the school desk...

We have heard too many instances of enforcement authorities turning a blind eye to prejudice and discrimination hoping it will go away. And that concern has now been reinforced by the fact that two soldiers are being charged with the murder of a black man.

Professionals like teachers and nurses need to be trained to help their wards deal with the transformation in the public face of Malta: it can be quite disheartening for an elderly patient who can only communicate in Maltese to be treated by a foreign worker, for example. But racism has become well and truly institutionalised when black migrants and Asians are treated as second-class citizens and employers exploit them to the full by paying them atrociously low salaries – and when the rest of the population turns a blind eye towards this abusive practice.

While it would be a terrible error to tar the entire AFM with the same brush, we need to know whether the institutionalisation of racism has made inroads even here; whether a culture of racism has crept in among our armed services and is being quietly tolerated. This is a question that needs to be tackled as a matter of urgency by the internal board that has been set up to look into the possible existence of xenophobia in the wake of the ─Žal Far murder.

The sooner we acknowledge the need to tackle this malignant and malicious systemic illness, the sooner we can start solving this problem of racism that has taken root.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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