The statement by the opposition Nationalist Party’s home affairs spokesperson, Joe Giglio, in response to a violent brawl between a group of Syrians is a perfect example of how the rhetoric of fear and frustration can be recklessly employed and deployed for political expediency.
On 18 August, footage of a group of around 25 Syrians embroiled in a street fight in Ħamrun did the rounds on social media and hit the headlines. In response to the incident, Prime Minister Robert Abela condemned the violence in a brief statement to Labour Party’s ONE Radio, saying he would not allow Malta’s communities to be turned into “jungles”.
Freshly returned from a summer yachting holiday, Abela earlier today paid a visit to the mayors of Hamrun and Marsa to, according to the party’s television station ONE News, “discuss residents’ challenges”, which include “security in their localities”. Abela then posted a photograph of the meeting to his Facebook page
Joe Giglio, however, went a step further and presented six proposals to increase security in Malta.
At first glance, these proposals look like a no-nonsense, tough-on-crime stance which will certainly earn the Opposition nods of approval (and Joe Giglio brownie points), but on closer inspection, some of the statements are ambiguous, others lack context, while others are, at best, inaccurate.
Is Malta’s public safety being threatened?
Giglio’s opening statement starts by asserting that public safety in Malta is under threat and that every day we hear of some new incident. While it is true that there have been several reports of violent brawls since 2020, going as far as to claim that public safety is being threatened may be a stretch.
Moreover, the statement does not tally with the currently available data. According to the 2021 Annual Crime Review by the Crime Malta Observatory, the long-term analysis of data suggests “a continued generic trend line decrease in reported crime”.
According to the report, Malta’s crime rate dropped from 42 crimes per 1,000 persons in 2015 to 30.6 crimes per 1,000 persons in 2021.
The report, however, notes that society still perceives that crime is increasing even though the available data suggests a stable situation. This perception is largely due to “erroneous political rhetoric”.
Immediate deportation of law-breaking foreigners
Giglio’s second point states that foreigners who break the law should be immediately deported.
This statement is superfluous for two reasons. First, Malta’s Immigration Act already provides for the deportation of foreigners. Article 5 (2) d of the Immigration Act, states that a person can become a prohibited migrant if they have been convicted in court and have been given sentences of up to one-year of imprisonment. Once in custody, the minister can decide whether to remove the person after serving their sentence (Article 14). This however does not apply to people who are afforded special protection such as refugees.
Secondly, according to the most recent data published by Eurostat, in 2021, a total of 695 non-EU nationals were ordered to leave Malta, the country’s highest number yet.
The role of the army
Another suggestion from the opposition’s spokesperson for home affairs is that the army should play a more active role in law enforcement.
This suggestion is problematic for several reasons, not least because Giglio is fully aware of the consequences of having the army carry out civilian law-enforcement duties.
Back in 2010, Joe Giglio had said that citizens are not adequately protected against abuse of power and discrimination during roadblocks set up by the police and army.
Giglio was talking to The Sunday Times of Malta about the issues that arose after hundreds of individuals were subjected to vehicle checks and frisking by the police and the army on their way to the Ċirkewwa terminal to board the Gozo ferry for the Nadur carnival. Nine were detained, the majority on drug-related offences.
According to the law, those tasked with law enforcement should only stop vehicles and search passengers if they have “reasonable suspicion” that an individual has or is about to commit a crime. What happened, instead, was that individuals who questioned an officer’s grounds for stopping them ended up in court charged with obstructing police officers in the execution of their duty.
“Experience teaches us that where people have dared to protest, they were eventually charged in court with having interfered or tried to influence people carrying out their duties, and this is precisely why the legislative framework at the moment and the way it is implemented is clearly not sufficient,” Giglio said at the time.
How confident are we that the legislative framework has improved? What’s more, if Giglio is suggesting that the army patrol the streets as they do in France (with Opération Sentinelle) and in Italy (Operazione Strade Sicure) then there are other factors to consider.
In France, the army patrolling the streets was largely in response to terrorist attacks around the country (not street brawls) and while the French public welcomed them, some, including former members of. the military, felt the operation placed a logistical and financial burden on France’s military and was just an “anti-anxiety” measure.
In Italy, when journalists tried to understand whether having the army patrolling the streets in different Italian cities reduced crime, they were presented with a mixed bag of results. In some cities, the rate of reporting certain types of crimes, such as theft, increasedwhile in others it remained unchanged, such as when it came to aiding and abetting prostitution.
The one thing journalists were able to confirm was that the biggest advantage of having the army in the streets was the perceived sense of security it afforded to the public.
Revamping the criminal code
Giglio also proposes re-writing Malta’s Criminal Code, which dates from 1854, to better suit today’s needs. Put that way, we’d be forgiven for thinking that this Code is an old crumbling document handwritten on parchment, stored in parliament’s basement, even though Malta’s Criminal Code is regularly updated with several amendments passed through parliament every year.
Giglio concludes the Nationalist Party’s proposals on public safety by saying Malta is open to people of goodwill and not those who come here to do as they please.
Giglio’s six-point statement is little more than populist rhetoric aimed at taking advantage of people’s heightened emotions for cheap political points and, as with all rhetoric, does not address any of the country’s structural issues such as an overstretched police force, the lack of enforcement of the laws we do have or the exploitation of foreigners in certain industries.
The most troubling aspect of these kinds of statements is that they fuel the idea of a “hierarchy” in the severity of crimes, depending on the nationality of the offender. They are populist, dangerous, and do nothing to better public safety in Malta – they do the very opposite.