Monday 08 August 2022

Escalating violence and Malta’s changing demographic: Perception or fact?

This column first appeared in Malta Today

It’s been a depressing few weeks news-wise.

At every turn we have been confronted by acts of violence, traffic accidents, horrific acts of sexual abuse and rape, people dying at construction sites, dementia patients wandering out of hospital and never found, not to mention a dose of animal cruelty.

Inevitably, the same question is often asked: “What has happened to Malta?”  When the incident involves some form of violence the automatic other question often is, “was the perpetrator a foreigner?”

Many will insist that the two questions are very much related: that the upward trend in daily violence is inextricably linked to the wave of foreign nationals from all over the world who have come to live and work here. What they fail to mention is that construction fatalities as well as the traffic accidents involving Bolt drivers or those on scooters mostly claim foreign nationals as their victims.  So while it’s true that there have been incidents where foreigners were the culprits, one cannot deny that just as many incidents have left foreigners bleeding and even dying.  

Anecdotal claims or people’s perception are not enough to come to any factual conclusion about this, because it would require a quantifiable scientific analysis of news reports going back over a substantial period.  However, online comments are very revealing about the pulse of the nation, and the fact that many people’s knee-jerk reaction when a crime is committed is to ask about nationality.  It is also noticeable that once a victim is not Maltese the interest for many people wanes..”eh mhux Malti? OK, mela” (Oh, they’re to Maltese? Ok then….) and they shrug and keep on scrolling. 

Empathy seems to have taken a sharp nose dive in direct proportion to the increasing number of economic migrants.  The bias and prejudice against the “foreigner” is ingrained and hard to ignore because we come across it daily. 

But how correct is the general assumption that violence in Malta is a direct result of a changing demographic?  Even without stats at our fingertips, a cursory look at recent headlines tells a conflicting story.  

The man in Hamrun who sexually abused two elderly people in the street was a Somalian, yet the carer who raped a vulnerable woman with mental health issues in her own home was Maltese. The horrific rape and murder of Paulina Dembska is still fresh in our minds – a young Polish woman who fell victim to a Maltese man who has been declared by psychiatrists as being insane at the time of this heinous crime and, in their opinion, is unfit to testify.   Entrepreneur Hugo Chetcuti was stabbed to death by a former employee, a Serbian national (now serving a life sentence).  Is one case automatically worse than the other because of the nationality? Does being Maltese make a criminal somehow less offensive and shocking to our sensibilities?  Common sense should tell us that it should not matter where a person comes from; a crime is a crime, yet the xenophobia unleashed every time, leading to sweeping statements about all Africans or all Eastern Europeans, is very real. 

This week a Maltese cab driver was brutally beaten up, allegedly with brass knuckles, by a young British man, resident in Malta, who has since been released on bail, against a deposit of €2,000 and a personal guarantee of €2,000. The uproar on social media was palpable especially since the taxi driver wrote about the incident and published shocking photos of his battered, bloodied face on FB, after which the story was picked up by all the newsrooms. However, this only served to strengthen the defence’s case for bail to be granted. Their argument was that, “A “social media lynch mob” was calling for the accused to be thrown out of the country or hanged.”  Details of the case and what actually happened are still emerging.

Yet as we are well aware, Maltese criminals have been notoriously let out on bail time and again, despite public protests. Drug lord Jordan Azzopardi, who had been arraigned on a list of charges including drug trafficking, assault and money-laundering, was released on bail last year against a personal guarantee of €150,000.  Yet here he was on Friday, arrested once again after a Police car chase, in possession of cocaine. 

In 2020 Bulgarian Emil Marinov was slashed more than 20 times with a butcher’s cleaver after he had agreed to meet a man at Ta’ Qali to purchase an item.  Elliot Paul Busuttil, 38, was arrested by police soon after, charged with attempted murder but was soon out on bail.   Earlier this year Busuttil was charged with the gruesome murder of taxi driver Mario Farrugia, whose decomposed body was discovered in the boot of his car.

The shocking double murder of Christian Pandolfino and Ivor Maciejowski in 2020 was carried out by three men, one from Denmark, one from North Macedonia and another from Albania. Although there were fears that they too would be released on bail, so far, two of them have been placed under bills of indictment.

The list goes on and on and this is without even mentioning violent incidents which do not lead to fatalities, such as people being beaten up and mugged, and the daily reports of thefts and robberies.  Taken as a whole they paint a very dark picture of a Malta which is no longer as safe as it used to be. But to tar everyone with the same brush based on nationality is not fair either.  If that were the case, most Maltese men would be described as child molesters and wife beaters, judging by the number of cases involving them.

I think that what has happened is that Malta has gained an unsavoury reputation for being lax when it comes to law and order – the infamous ‘culture of impunity’ which is often mentioned. As a result it has encouraged more people who have criminal tendencies (both local and foreign) to try and get away with it, precisely because they see that so many people (including politicians) have got away with criminal behaviour.  The delays in our overloaded justice system which often lead to those facing charges to be released on bail, the frequency with which suspended sentences are granted, and the fact that so many walk away scot free on technicalities do not help the ordinary citizen to feel protected at all.  

The frenzy to turn Malta into something it’s not, is also to blame. Rather than a laidback, slow-paced island, the country has turned into a sprawling metropolis where one town and village spills over into the next and transient occupants of anonymous blocks of apartments live next to each other, but never really lay down roots or become part of the community.  It should be obvious that the more we build, the more people will come here, and the larger the population the greater the probability of criminal elements seeping through. Of course, we can beef up our Police forces (and hopefully give them proper workplaces, not the squalor which was recently pictured) but there is only so much they can cope with on an island bursting at the seams, especially at the height of summer.

Ultimately, as with most things, the onus rests on the Government. Its short-sighted policies have led us to this point, so the responsibility lies squarely on this administration to make Malta safe again.

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