Opposition leader Joseph Muscat today presented an action plan on immigration and said that if the Prime Minister was not prepared to adopt it, he should put it to a referendum and let the people decide.
Speaking in Parliament, Dr Muscat called for tougher action by Malta. The government, he said, should establish the number of migrants which Malta could host in a suitable and sustainable manner. And if the international community did not act and the number of arrivals continued to exceed what Malta could handle, Malta should not exclude the suspension of its international obligations.
At the beginning of his 90-minute speech, Dr Muscat insisted that legality and the national interest were at the heart of the issue of illegal immigration.
There was no single solution for immigration, but there were ideas which should yield better results than the government’s current policies.
The fundamental issue was not race or gender, but rule of law. If a person obeyed the law he/she should have a right for all protection.
The first point of legality was that one should enter a country legally. The trips which were bringing the migrants to Malta were organized by criminals and current systems encouraged illegality. Therefore progressive governments in Europe had put the national interest before anything else. The Brown and Zapetero governments had been accused of being too tough. He felt they were being realistic, having drawn red lines in their national interest. In the US, President Obama had also said he was considering a heavier military presence at the borders to fight illegality. This was not racism, but putting the national interest first.
Dr Muscat said the Maltese had given examples throughout their history to show they were tolerant.
However tolerance succeeded when numbers were within manageable limits and based on rule of law. In the past 10 years,12,131 illegal immigrants had come to Malta of whom 13 percent were women and children. Last year a record 2,757 arrived, along with 758 in the first two months of this year.
Some 5,262 migrants were still in Malta, living in detention centres, open centres, or in the community.
Given the growth of this problem, there was a need for a plan of action that matched current circumstances, and which respected human dignity in the context of the national interest. The problem would not be solved overnight, but this did not mean it could not be managed better.
ADMISSION POLICY FOR DETENTION CENTRES
Listing the points of his action plan, Dr Muscat said the PL was proposing that rather than grouping all migrants together in detention centres, there should be an admissions policy whereby women were separated from men because in detention one saw a higher possibility of abuse on women and the vulnerable. Of course, one had to make allowances for families.
Furthermore one should separate those who were likely to qualify for protection from those who obviously did not qualify. One should also separate the migrants according to ethnic groups so as to remove another potential source of conflict.
Children should not be put in detention.
RESPECT FOR MALTESE CULTURE
While Maltese society had to understand the desperation which at least some of the migrants had experienced, the migrants too needed to understand and respect the Maltese way of living and culture. They had to understand that women had a right to wear what they wished, that people queued for what they needed, and they did not relieve themselves in public. They needed to adopt to Maltese norms so as to help the Maltese understand them better There should therefore be courses for community living for the migrants.
TRAINING WHILE IN DETENTION
Dr Muscat said another source of problems was that migrants had nothing to do in detention. Forced labour was not acceptable but the migrants should be given education and training, including community living, English, and respect to authority.
DETENTION WHICH RESPECTED HUMAN DIGNITY
Dr Muscat said there was no alternative to detention in Malta and the Opposition therefore backed the government’s detention policy. But conditions in detention centres had to be acceptable. Current conditions were shameful. The PL had already called for an admissions policy. It was also underlining the importance of discipline. One could not tolerate disrespect for detention officers. Discipline was lacking in detention centres. There could be several reasons for this, including sheer numbers, but one could not have a situation where everyone could do what he wished. It was also important that there was security around the detention centres. The current situation was a farce. Furthermore, facilities had to be suitable for people and appropriate for the cultures these migrants came from.
REPORT TO PARLIAMENT
Dr Muscat said the Opposition was calling for regular reports to Parliament on the state of detention centres. It was not right that such reports were only drawn up for foreign agencies. A parliamentary committee should be able to visit the centres and speak to the detention officers and the migrants.
Dr Muscat said he wished to thank the security services for their work despite being under-resourced and under-paid and sometimes, even under-trained. The security services needed the tools to be able to work more efficiently.
ASSISTANCE TO COMMUNITIES
Dr Muscat said communities where open centres were located should be assisted. Some migrants respected their neighbours and helped in the communities. But there had also been problems created not by race, but illegalities. In Birzebbuga some migrants placed stones in the middle of the road and people’s cars were damaged. In Marsa residents saw migrants relieve all their natural needs in the middle of the road. In Safi and Kirkop residents locked their doors whenever they heard a helicopter flying low, because migrants would have escaped, and some were found on people’s roofs.
Dr Muscat said that despite the growth of this issue, the administrative set-up had not been improved and responsibilities were shared between various ministries and departments, causing confusion and lack of focus. The Home Affairs Ministry did not even have an immigration department. The Opposition felt there should be a person with executive powers equivalent to a minister who would focus solely on immigration.
Dr Muscat said those who obeyed the law should not be put at a disadvantage by those who broke it. For example, the government should stop awarding contracts to contractors who were found to employ and exploit immigrants, paying them a pittance. Such practices should stop because they were an incentive to illegality.
Dr Muscat said equality was important. One aspect which irritated the Maltese was that migrants jumped the queue in hospitals and health centres. This issue could be solved with appointments given for visits to clinics. Furthermore, more doctors should visit the detention centres, removing the need for the migrants to go to other clinics. Furthermore, employment for the same post should require the same qualifications. At present, the Maltese needed far higher qualifications to be engaged as care workers among the migrants than migrants themselves.
Dr Muscat said one could not expect progress in burden sharing, despite the Immigration pact, unless effective action was taken by Malta. The current agreement was voluntary and not binding because the government had been weak. The Opposition was proposing that the government should request the EU presidency and the Commission to coordinate and establish how many migrants would be taken by other countries. Furthermore the Dublin II agreement should be revised.
It was not satisfactory that the Commission vice president, Jacques Barrot had said there would be a small pilot project on burden sharing by the end of next year. And there was no commitment of what would happen next. He feared, Dr Muscat said, that this was another tactic by the Commission to win time. But the problem was pressing for Malta. Malta wanted action, not experiments.
If there was no clear and agreed timeframe to make burden-sharing effective, the government should suspend its membership of the Immigration Pact.
Dr Muscat said the government should consider releasing itself from some provisions of the Dublin II agreement. Firstly, Malta should establish how many migrants it could host in a decent manner which would enable integration. The numbers had to be sustainable. At present numbers were far too high.
The calculation of the number of migrants should consider not only geographic but also economic factors.
When that number was exceeded, the government should show its teeth, not with migrants, but by suspending administrative procedures of Dublin II, such as the fingerprinting of all migrants. This was what other countries did. This meant that when a migrant moved on and was re-arrested, a country could not send him back to the EU country he came from.
If the EU didnot change Dublin II and numbers continued to rise, Malta shold show that it preferred to defend the national interest.
VETO IN THE EU
Malta, Dr Muscat said, needed to be firm and not be an accomplice with the human traffickers because of outdated rules. When the sustainable number of migrants who could be accommodated was exceeded, Malta should use its veto where unanimity was needed in the EU. This veto should be used sporadically even in areas which had nothing to do with illegal immigration, until the other EU countries took notice and agreed to change the rules. True, the veto drew political repercussions. But doing nothing caused repercussions too, Dr Muscat said.
What needed to be changed, first and foremost, was the rule whereby the EU country which first received the migrants remained responsible for them.
Malta also needed to bring about a change in the terms of reference of Frontex because it was ineffective. More countries needed to participate in Frontex, or else the agency should have its own resources for year-round operations.
Dr Muscat said Malta should campaign for greater development aid and an updated agricultural policy in the EU so that conditions in Africa could improve, thus easing the need for people to migrate. This was especially the duty of those European countries which as colonisers, had exploited the countries from where the migrants came. Perhaps there was a need for something like the Marshall Plan for Africa. But such aid should be given on condition that they facilitated the repatriation of migrants.
Dr Muscat said Libya should be engaged in the issue of immigration, and he felt the government was working in this direction. Malta should seek the same agreement as reached between Libya and Italy and Spain and Mauretania and Senegal. However he had to criticized what appeared to be a lack of commitment by the Libyan authorities to tackle immigration.
Dr Muscat said Malta should be ready to raise the ante. Not by letting anyone drown. But by drawing the attention of the international community to move things. If they did not budge, Malta should make it clear that it was prepared to move ahead and if numbers grew, it could not exclude starting to interpret international obligations in a different way which was more suited to the national interest. Malta should even consider suspending such rules for a specific period.
This did not mean allowing people to drown, but helping them and then seeing them on their way.
One could not allow people in, out of respect for international norms, only to put them in facilities which were not even fit for dogs.
Dr Muscat said that in 2005 when migration was far lower, even Tonio Borg said Malta could suspend its international obligations.
Dr Muscat said the government should shoulder its responsibilities and follow this plan In so doing it would be backed by the Opposition. If Dr Gonzi did not want to shoulder the burden, he should call a referendum to see the people’s view on this plan of action.
What was clear, Dr Muscat concluded, was that current government policy was unpopular and ineffective. A change was needed.
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