Human rights NGOs have taken issue with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s claim that public sentiment towards migrants was shifting in the wake of Lassana Cisse’s murder, insisting far more needs to be done.

Dr Muscat said at a campaign event in Ħamrun on Monday, after two Armed Forces of Malta soldiers were charged with the racially-motivated murder of the Ivorian migrant on April 6, he “sensed a shift in the public mood” after the attack.

“If it were acceptable last week to tolerate people venting far-right comments on the media, it is not acceptable anymore. Jokes or perceived jokes that would have made people laugh until last week are no longer acceptable,” Dr Muscat said.

'This didn't happen in a vacuum'

But speaking to the Times of Malta, Aditus director Neil Falzon said he saw no evidence of such a shift.

“There was a widespread sentiment of shock and condemnation but, at the same time, we still have people commenting negatively about migrants and saying horrible things about the incident itself,” he said.

He criticised the institutional response in the immediate aftermath of the murder, including the Prime Minister’s reluctance to ascribe a racist motivation to the attack.

“Like all similar incidents, this didn’t happen in a vacuum: it was the build-up of years and years of our institutions criminalising and dehumanising migrants. They have to understand that their words and actions have a trickle-down effect on every person in the country,” Dr Falzon said.

Referring to policies of successive governments, including detention and the closing of ports to migrant rescue vessels, as well as xenophobic discourse in the current election campaign, he said: “That all has an impact on how the rest of the country treats and deals with migrants. We hope this is a wake-up call but we all need to sit down to plan what we’re going to do to deal with racism in the country.”  

SOS Malta head Claudia Taylor-East said that, while the murder had indeed prompted an outcry and a response in the form of support for the victims – two others were injured in the shooting – and their families, it was too soon for any pronouncements on a shift in public sentiment. 

Lassana Cisse.Lassana Cisse.

“We need to see more action on the ground,” she said. 

“Too little has been done in terms of racial integration: much more has to be done for us to accept the reality that we are living in a multicultural society.”

Insisting Malta’s population was not racist, Ms Taylor-East said more had to be done to support those working in the field and to tackle xenophobic discourse, including by making it easier to report and prosecute hate speech.

“It should not take a murder for us to start talking about racism. It’s true we are a caring society; we’ve shown that in our country over and over again,” she said. 

“We need to build on the positive.”

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