The government’s treatment of migrants from Africa has been abhorrent over the years. It makes a mockery of all its talk of equality and justice. To the government, is seems equality only counts with people whose skin is white.
This statement is not being made lightly. The official approach to black migrants over the years bears it out. It points to an underlying, institutionalised racism that cuts across social classes and political boundaries. It will never be admitted but is expressed clearly by actions and omissions.
Take the protest planned for the end of the month by migrants and NGOs that represent them. It will be the second sparked by the abandonment last month of an undocumented migrant worker in the middle of a Mellieħa road, injured and in great pain after a construction-site accident.
The protesters will target Malta’s changes in policy that now make it more difficult for migrants to regulate their position. This change is causing great uncertainty and anxiety for those caught in this bureaucratic limbo, even if they have lived and paid taxes in Malta for years. Under their current non-status, they and their families have very limited access to healthcare, employment or education. That is not just uncharitable: it is unjust.
Lamin Jaiteh, the Gambian who travelled from Italy to Malta in search of a job, was in a similar situation. He was dumped by the roadside because his boss allegedly feared his irregular employment would be discovered by the authorities if he took him to hospital.
Policymakers acted all shocked. Prime Minister Robert Abela said: “Every resident in our country will receive the protection of the institutions.” Yet, Jaiteh was a resident too, even if an unofficial one. Abela’s use of the word gives rise to doubt over his intended meaning: was he including or excluding Jaiteh from that protection?
It would be a simple move to grant temporary employment licences to people like Jaiteh instead of making it even more difficult for them to work legally. It would be just as simple to ensure that all residents, regardless of their status, are guaranteed free education and healthcare.
Jaiteh was lucky to live after falling from a height. That itself highlights another government failing. Migrants seem to form the bedrock of Malta’s construction industry, doing the most thankless and dangerous jobs as developers make hay. But has the government done all it could to ensure they work in safety? The four deaths on construction sites so far this year suggest not.
Incident after incident points to a society that treats some people as less deserving than others. The pushback of rescued migrants to Libya to face torture or death. The holding of others on boats out at sea. The treatment of asylum seekers as a sort of currency – we take in so many if other EU countries do the same. The abysmal conditions at open and closed centres, repeatedly revealed as being in breach of the fundamental right to dignified and humane treatment.
Politicians lead by example. Their intolerance is inevitably reflected in society. They should not feign outrage when a black man is shot dead by a stranger on a country road; when another is thrown into the sea in Gozo; and when another is dumped on the road with spinal injuries.
Luckily, Jaiteh seems to be on the mend, thanks in part to the kindness of others, a sign that the values of compassion and tolerance are still very much alive in our society.
But when his fellow migrants take to the street again, they will symbolise the intolerance and prejudice that still permeate other parts of society, not least at the highest level.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.