News | Sunday, 15 March 2009

Barrot pledges aid to improve detention conditions

EC vice-president says ‘Malta must improve detention centres’

European Commission vice-president Jacques Barrot called on Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici to improve conditions for immigrants, pledging more financial aid for Malta from the EU for immigration.
“I am ready to help you financially,” Barrot whispered with some urgency to Mifsud Bonnici, clearly taken aback at the conditions of detained asylum seekers in Hal Far as they grouped around the Commission and government delegation and army officials.
“No health!” one detainee shouted out, as others waved banners calling for proper shelter and humane treatment, venting their frustrations to the European delegation.
Yesterday the Commissioner for Freedom, Security and Justice witnessed first hand the critical state of the country’s detention policy, as well as getting an earful from MPs from the foreign affairs parliamentary committee.
His tour came a day after the departure of the Medeçins Sans Frontiers placement in the Hal Far camp, in protest at the lack of basic sanitary standards, amongst other shortcomings, in the detention centres.
The government claims MSF’s departure was purposely timed, but sources admitted it was a big blow they hadn’t expected. “We were banking on them for certain work… Admittedly, a few months ago we did receive a letter from them, but they only pointed out certain shortcomings and that they would be reviewing their position in Malta if no action was taken. But at no point did they mention that they would leave – as they did without forewarning.”
But although the government stuck to its guns on its detention policy, a clearly embarrassed Mifsud Bonnici made on-the-spot amends when Barrot entered one of the tents in which detainees are living. “I want him out of there,” he was overheard telling one of his officials, referring to a detained migrant.
Barrot stressed once again the need to improve conditions at the detention centre with MPs from the foreign affairs committee.
However, missing from the picture of Malta’s main foreign affairs representatives was one key person – foreign minister Tonio Borg – who instead chose to accompany the President of the Republic to the Vatican to meet the Pope, the same week he complained of immigration being “Malta’s biggest problem”.
Former foreign minister Michael Frendo told Barrot: “Malta’s borders are not just a gate to one member state, but to the rest of Europe… certainly no EU member state or citizen may disregard what happens at Europe’s gates.”
But Barrot replied: “I know that detainees are numerous here… but you need an improvement – at the closed centres in particular.”
His comment provoked a barrage of criticism from the MPs, amongst them MEP Simon Busuttil, claiming the EU had failed in supporting Malta.
“The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Malta has been turning down our request to allow EU member states to host some of the refugees in Malta,” Frendo said. “The Commission should take up this issue with UNHCR, and if the UN keeps refusing, then the EU should create a European quota to establish how many refugees every state can take as its maximum.”
Labour MP George Vella even said money is not the solution to the problem. “It’s a tough nut to crack… we cannot possibly meet it alone. Immigrants are suffering, and as Christians, we cannot see them in these conditions – but we cannot provide what we don’t have. I expect the EU to take measures, not just pump money.”
Vella blamed the EU’s inaction for Malta’s “rising rightist movements, racism and xenophobia”. “We’ve always been a hospitable nation,” he said, “but recession is rearing its head.”
Labour MP Leo Brincat bluntly told Barrot the Maltese people are “disappointed at the EU due to its lack of will in dealing with the problem. You should start coming up with concrete solutions to the problem, rather than money. We need the EU to mean business.”
And Nationalist MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando claimed the situation was unsustainable. “The problems at our centres may be unacceptable, but insurmountable,” he said.
He said that with the EU’s credibility dented, the immigration issue would reflect on voter turnouts in the upcoming MEP elections. “Although unlikely that rightist movements will elect candidates to the EP, I am quite certain that there will be an element of protest vote.”
He hinted at the idea of stopping EU aid to countries that refuse to co-operate on migration issues, and said the EU should take harsher steps with Libya. “Libya depends on business from EU countries.”
Barrot, appearing responsive to the committee’s lamentations, said he would take Malta’s concerns to the Commission table. “I have asked your minister to improve the conditions of the centres, and on my part, I will go back to Brussels to table your points.”

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