Once again, Malta finds itself under the spotlight of harsh criticism for its treatment of migrants held in detention, this time in the latest report of the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture.

Once again, the Maltese authorities find themselves accused of institutional neglect of the dignity, safety and well-being of those in our migrant detention centres. The committee’s report states that the situation may amount to ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ as defined in law and is in breach of our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Once again, while fully acknowledging the serious challenges Malta faces in receiving and managing relatively large numbers of asylum seekers, the report insists that such challenges do not absolve the authorities of their basic duties and legal obligations.

Once again, Malta is urged to fundamentally change its approach as a matter of urgency and to ensure that migrants deprived of liberty have their dignity and humanity upheld in all respects.

The report notes that there appears to be no legal basis for the detention of the great majority of migrants who are held in severely overcrowded facilities under extremely poor conditions. In addition, they are offered no meaningful activity or effective communication on their situation and are victims of restricted contact with the outside world.   

The situation has been aggravated significantly by COVID-19 and the lockdown and quarantining of migrants leading to growing frustration and even to violence. 

Previous recommendations by the committee, for example those on the “entirely inappropriate” prison-like design of some centres, no privacy, communication delivered through locked doors etc., have been ignored by the government. Other issues include poor maintenance of sanitary facilities, insufficient personal hygiene products and cleaning materials, a lack of clean clothes and extreme overcrowding.

In a minority of cases, the report references the deliberate physical ill-treatment by the police and staff of detained migrants, excessive use of unnecessary force and use of pepper spray as a form of punishment, even towards juveniles.

The committee tellingly comments that vulnerable migrants are not getting agreed and appropriate support. Young children, their parents as well as unaccompanied/separated minors are detained together with unrelated adult men against all agreed health and safety protocols and agreements. 

The report leads inevitably to the conclusion that a system focused solely on containing migrants and then essentially forgetting them is self-evidently abusive and is clearly intended to be so. This is now an approach and a pattern pursued by various governments to varying degrees over two decades.

Underlying the evidence and the debates, denials and rebuttals this latest report triggers is an underlying perspective, strategy and, crucially, a series of actions and inactions that amount to institutionalised racism. It echoes key aspects of the treatment of black people generally around the world today and in the past.  

That world view asserts that Europeans and, more generally, white people are not only different from but superior to people of darker pigmentation. That belief in European or white superiority is fuelling an aggression against perceived newcomers at a time when the relative decline of the West is being acutely felt by many.

The attitudes and policies of the Maltese authorities towards migrants and the focused comments of ministers of state, media commentators and many Maltese on social media amount to nothing short of racism despite their howls of dissent.

As a result, the consequences for vulnerable migrants in our care are very considerable. Less immediately and visibly apparent is the damage to Malta and the Maltese. The situation is not just damaging Malta institutionally and internationally, it is sowing the seeds of a very bitter future harvest.

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