Victims without justice, graves without names, policies that kill
Daniela DeBono and Ċetta Mainwaring,
University of Malta and University of Glasgow, Free the El Hiblu 3 Campaign
On a sunny Sunday morning in early February 2022, people gathered in Gardjola Gardens at the tip of Isla’s peninsula, perched high above Malta’s Grand Harbour. They came to commemorate the dead, the missing and the forcibly disappeared in one of the world’s deadliest border regions – as others similarly gathered in protest and mourning around the world on that Global Day of CommemorAction. In 2021, 1,972 people died in the Mediterranean, adding to the death toll of at least 23,000 people in the last decade – official statistics that remain gross underestimates. The protesters’ charge, and ours, is that successive Maltese governments have pursued policies that cause death and suffering. Across both sides of the political aisle, politicians have spent the 21st century constructing a permanent crisis around migration and shirking their human rights obligations: abandoning people at sea and marginalising and criminalising them if they manage to arrive on the Maltese islands. In line with wider EU policies, rhetoric and practices, Malta has chosen racist policies that kill.
These deadly policies and practices, and the associated criminalisation of migrants and their allies, have certainly intensified in the last few years – an intensification illustrated by the outrageous charges levied against Abdalla, Amara and Kader, three young men who used their language skills to translate, and thus helped to bring about the peaceful resolution of a tense situation. However, Malta has a longer shameful history of violent practices towards people categorised as ‘migrants’, ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘refugees’. In 2002, two years before Malta’s accession to the EU, the Maltese authorities forcibly deported 220 Eritreans. Once back in Eritrea, they were detained in the Adi Abeto military detention centre and kept incommunicado. Many were tortured, maimed, and sentenced to forced labour. Some were shot and killed.
Since then, we have witnessed the continued systemic subjugation of people in the Mediterranean. In Malta, successive governments have prioritised policies aimed at deterring arrivals. Yet such policies fail to deter while continuing to marginalise and oppress. For example, international human rights organisations regularly lambast Malta’s punitive detention system. In three key legal cases, the European Court of Human Rights found that Malta’s detention practices violated people’s right to liberty and security, as well as the prohibition against inhuman and degrading treatment. Echoing these judgements, the Committee for the Prevention of Torture found conditions that ‘border[ed] on inhuman and degrading treatment as a consequence of institutional neglect’ in 2020. That same year, the government also detained over 400 people on tourist ferry boats, on the high seas outside Malta’s territorial waters, some for nearly six weeks. The Maltese authorities barred access to lawyers and advocacy organisations, and effectively blocked the detainees' right to asylum. The case is currently being challenged in court. In addition, thousands of people have been forcibly detained in sub-standard conditions over the past years, although they have not committed any crime.
Once out of detention, people remain at the whim of changing and punitive policies – often under the continued threat of deportation – that undermine attempts to secure a livelihood and live in peace. In 2013, for example, the authorities attempted to deport 45 Somali men to Libya on the day they arrived in Malta, before their asylum claims could be considered. The government was only stopped due to the efforts of local advocacy groups and activists who physically blocked police headquarters to prevent the men’s deportation until they obtained an emergency interim order from the European Court of Human Rights. Marginalised and criminalised, people who arrive by sea face a hostile asylum system riddled with delays and deficiencies. They face poverty, homelessness and substandard housing. Relegated by government policies to the margins, they face precarious work conditions in poorly regulated sectors. Last year, in 2021, Lamin Jaiteh, a 32-year-old from Gambia, was seriously injured while working on a construction site and then dumped by the side of the road by his employer. Yet he survived. That same year, a 38-year-old Malian man and a 50-year-old Bulgarian man died after falling several storeys at different construction sites.
At sea, Maltese politicians have decided to regularly abandon people in need of rescue. In May 2007, 27 people spent days hanging onto a fishing pen being pulled by a Maltese trawler as Malta and Italy squabbled over responsibility for rescue and disembarkation. On 11 October 2013, the Maltese authorities did little to help nearly five hundred people in distress within their search and rescue area. After hours of ignoring their clear and repeated calls for help – the recordings of which were later leaked to the Italian press – Malta and Italy effectively stood by while 268 people, including 60 children, drowned. In Italy, two Italian officers stand trial for manslaughter in the case that continues today, with Malta’s culpability not under examination in the courts. This practice of abandoning people in distress at sea, adopted by Malta and Italy in part to shift responsibility for rescue to each other, has been commonplace throughout much of the 21st century. Many of these accounts from the sea only emerge due to the tenacity of people making the journey and their allies: organisers, activists, lawyers and others who resist the state’s attempt to silence and work instead to shine a light on injustice.
Since 2015, the Maltese government has not only refused to carry out its legal obligation to rescue people in distress, but it has also actively discouraged merchant ships and the civil fleet from rescuing people in the central Mediterranean, exacerbating the death and suffering at sea. Malta shut its ports to both merchant ships and search and rescue NGOs in need of a safe place to disembark people, criminalising those that continue this vital work. In 2020, on Easter Sunday, the government went a step further and illegally returned people from its search and rescue area to Libya – by all accounts an unsafe, war-torn country where migrants regularly face violence, rape and torture. The authorities did so by contracting a privately-owned vessel to push people in distress back to Libya. Twelve people died and the survivors were returned to Tripoli’s Tariq al-Sikka, one of Libya’s notorious detention centres. Fifty-two of the survivors, along with relatives of the deceased, filed a Constitutional case against the Maltese government, alleging a breach of their rights and a violation of the right to life. Containing people in and returning people to Libya, despite well documented and widespread human rights abuses, is now official policy in Malta and the EU more widely. As a result of the EU’s support for the so-called Libyan coastguard, more than 32,000 people were intercepted at sea and returned to certain torture and violence in Libya in 2021.
As Ruth Wilson Gilmore reminds us, structural racism exposes people to premature death, whether at sea or on land. At sea and on land, this violent politics of neglect dehumanises, fuelling racism and hostility in Malta. In March 2019, only nine days after the El Hiblu survivors arrived on the island, Lassana Cisse, a father of three from the Ivory Coast, was murdered in a racially motivated drive-by shooting. Two members of the armed forces are charged with his murder.
Nevertheless, in Malta and in the wider Mediterranean, people continue to resist these violent policies and practices. People continue to arrive in Malta and other European states despite the violent attempts to stop them. In 2014, a civil fleet emerged to counter state violence and abandonment at sea. The WatchTheMed Alarm Phone connects people across seas and continents, and runs a hotline for those on the move, providing both practical support and political leadership on migration. Through legal cases, migrants, activists and lawyers hold governments to account for their misdeeds. In Malta, those detained regularly resist their incarceration through protest and escape. Those newly arrived in Malta, as well as those who have been there longer, have formed organisations to support migrants and refugees and resist their incarceration and marginalisation. In different ways, both visible and less visible, NGOs and individuals in Malta have supported and accompanied people in their quest for justice. Demonstrations, like the one at Gardjola Gardens, continue to shine a light on injustice and signal the wide range of voices of dissent, united in their commitment to build more peaceful and just societies. Likewise, the varied voices in this collection, including those of Abdalla, Amara and Kader, come together in a powerful demand for justice.
The case of the El Hiblu 3 is tragic, unjust and cruel. The initial attempt at a pushback to Libya, the nature of the charges, the young men’s imprisonment, including placing them as minors in an adult prison, the ongoing case and the Prosecution’s collection of evidence all point towards a colossal misuse of power by the authorities. No human being should be subjected to such treatment. Movement should not be a privilege of the rich. Free the El Hiblu 3 now!