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Harry Vassallo | Wednesday, 25 March 2009

From Caiphas to Pilate

The best advert for our client-patron system must definitely be the passage of our problems from one government department to another. In far too many cases for comfort reality does not fit neatly within the mandate of one Ministry and we find ourselves in danger of lingering forever in the limbo between various powers that be.
The client patron system short-circuits the vacillation between soothing but ineffectual yes-men and the abominable no-men.
Whether our path leads straight to the top or through the soft underbelly of the bureaucracy, it is invariably quicker. The price is usually the assumption of an obligation, the promise of loyalty, the minimum being one vote at election time. We increase out capital and our clout within the system depending on how many votes we can rally at crucial times, of what influence we may be perceived to be.
Being the head of an extended family is far better than being alone in the world. Being the barman at a party club may give us considerable grassroots clout at the interface between party candidates in a given electoral district. Democracy is a funny business.
It stops being funny if you happen to be a foreigner, if you have not a single vote to trade, no extended family and no influence of any kind. You just have to pray that you never come in need of any favour.
The case of Ashraf El Bakry may be an extreme example but remains in many ways typical of the way we deal with foreigners. Some fifteen years ago Mr El Bakry voluntarily ended his career with the Egyptian Air Force to go into business. He chose to set up an international trading company under Maltese law at the time as so many other foreigners did at the time. In the process he acquired the right to reside and to work in Malta.
Had fate decreed that he should achieve even a modest success in his venture and no more, we might never have come to hear of him. Instead he met and married a Maltese woman and brought over to Malta his two sons from previous marriages in Egypt. A pre-existing disability became worse following a car accident in Malta and his marriage failed. Just as misfortune seemed to have piled up a full portion, it dealt him an extra helping when one of his sons came back from school to announce that his brother had been taken away under a care order and that another had been issued to take him also.
El Bakry’s response was to contact the Ministry responsible and to offer to fly out of the country with both his sons at once. He bought the tickets and went to the airport with his remaining son confident that the one taken in care by the authorities would be brought to catch the same flight.
Far from being allowed to fly away with both his sons, he discovered that the care order issued for his remaining son would be enforced at the airport if he tried to board the plane. Acting swiftly, he gave his son into the care of a friend who had accompanied him to the airport and took the flight alone in the hope of securing the release of both his children from Egypt. It turned out to be a forlorn hope and he returned to Malta some months later to find that both his sons had been institutionalised and that his absence from Malta was being interpreted by the authorities as confirmation of neglect.
The care order had been issued on the strength of a report received and implemented prior to having given the father a chance to explain. His absence had made it impossible for a proper hearing to be made in the case and by the time he returned the matter had gelled and not in his favour. The Ministry claimed that its position had always been that it would be glad to allow the children to travel to Egypt if a recognised institution was willing to take them into care there.
For El Bakry who never could understand why the care orders had been issued and never acclimatised to the idea that a Maltese authority held sway over his Egyptian children, the offer seemed only to make things worse. He could never concede that he was at fault and would never consent for such a fault to be attributed to him with his home government. There would be no quick solution.
Much of this may not be news to those of us who recall El Bakry’s hunger strike attempt on the steps of the law courts. It may come as a blow to some of us to realise that the matter has not made a step forward in the last four years.
Having made some effort to help the man four years ago it was truly a shock to me to discover that nobody except El Bakry himself appears to have done anything much to resolve the situation. I had not heard of him since and had assumed that the matter was closed somehow.
He had been busy alerting every possible agency and person in authority to his plight. He showed me sheaves of correspondence with virtually every Ministry, the President, the Ombudsman, the Archbishop, the EU Commission and various international human rights agencies. Nothing seems to have worked. Nobody seems to have taken any notice.
Meanwhile a dire financial situation has become chronic desperation. If he leaves the country he might never be allowed to return and his absence has already been misinterpreted before. He is no longer allowed to work in Malta and not entitled to any social assistance. As far as officialdom is concerned he has survived on thin air for four very long years.
From his point of view the offence to his reputation in the taking of his children has been compounded by the neglect to which he has been exposed himself. His forced residency without the possibility of earning an income, a clear recipe for long-lasting economic disaster is experienced as a form of inhuman and degrading treatment heaped upon the prior assault on the right to the enjoyment of his family life. In the present context he contrasts his lot to that of irregular immigrants who are housed and granted an allowance while he faces mounting debts in the cold and dark of a home in which electricity supply was suspended in November. He has all the time in the world to mull over what he has been through so far, his lack of prospects and the burning realisation that his sons were forcibly taken from him and brought up as westerners for the last four years.
He realises that the nothing will ever reverse this process and the damage done but somewhere he must still hope that someone will recognise his merit in having endured it so far.
It is my hope also and not only for El Bakry. The solution to his case will require a government Minister to step out of the box cutting the asphyxiating red tape, to re-examine the case and call to their separate responsibilities his Cabinet colleagues who will also need to take some minor action to end the intolerable impasse. It is my hope but not my expectation. My experience so far has been only of legalistic responsibility shedding and a phobic aversion to the bad PR that may attach from cases such as this. I would dearly love to be pleasantly surprised and also to be relieved of my small portion of indirect responsibility for this situation as a Maltese citizen. It would make a glorious precedent perhaps infusing our bureaucracy with some humanity and making us aware of some of our failings in dealing with those who have no vote to trade.


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