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Malta continued to face numerous challenges related to immigration in 2011, including xenophobia, poor conditions in detention and open centers, and rioting. Meanwhile, a law legalizing divorce was adopted in July, and the government continued to take steps to address corruption.
After gaining independence from Britain in 1964, Malta joined the Commonwealth and became a republic in 1974. Power has alternated between the pro-Western, center-right Nationalist Party (PN) and the nonaligned, leftist Malta Labour Party (MLP). The PN pursued membership in the European Union (EU), which the country finally achieved in 2004.
Former prime minister and veteran PN leader Edward Fenech Adami was elected president of the republic in 2004. Lawrence Gonzi, the deputy prime minister, took over the premiership.
In the March 2008 elections, Gonzi led the PN to a narrow victory over the Labour Party (PL), the renamed MLP; the PN won 49.3 percent of the vote, while the PL captured 48.9 percent. However, results in the country’s 13 multi-member electoral constituencies gave the PL 34 seats and the PN 31, triggering a constitutional provision that allows extra seats to be added to ensure a legislative majority for the party winning the popular vote. The PN consequently received four additional seats. Voter turnout was 93 percent, the lowest the country had seen since 1971.
Former PL leader George Abela was sworn in as president in April 2009. Abela, who was very popular with voters from both parties, was the first president to be nominated by a political party not in power and the first since 1974 to be backed by both sides of the House of Representatives.
Given Malta’s central location in the Mediterranean, Malta has received an increasing number of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers over the last decade, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa, who subsequently settle in the country or proceed to migrate to other EU countries. A 2008 agreement between Italy and Libya succeeded in curbing immigration to the EU, and by 2010, unauthorized immigration to Malta had significantly declined. A 2010 pilot intra-EU Relocation of Refugees from Malta program also helped to reduce the number of immigrants that Malta would need to accept. However, in 2011, immigration to Malta began to increase again due to the armed conflict in Libya.
Incoming refugees and asylum-seekers still face mandatory detention of up to 18 months under Maltese law. In March 2011, the Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe released a report on the reception of immigrants and asylum seekers in Malta, which concluded that the Maltese policy on forced detention for asylum seekers violates the European Convention of Human Rights. The report also documented inadequate conditions in certain open centers, and reported that a majority of immigrants faced xenophobia and discrimination in housing, employment, and services. Malta’s media and political discourse were also criticized for contributing to an atmosphere of hostility and intolerance toward immigrants. Riots occurred at the Safi Detention Centre in May and in August, sparked by limited food supplies and the rejection of asylum applications.
Malta is an electoral democracy. Members of the 69-seat unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected for five-year terms. Lawmakers elect the president, who also serves for five years. The president names the prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or coalition.
The ruling PN and opposition PL dominate national politics. The smaller Democratic Alternative party also competes, but is not currently represented in the parliament.
Malta continued to fight corruption with new legislation in 2011. The Permanent Commission Against Corruption Bill was amended in March to allow for the appointment of a special prosecutor and to broaden the definition of corruption. However, an October EU report claimed that Malta has one of the worst “black economies” in the eurozone, and that at least a quarter of Malta’s annual gross domestic product is not being reported.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press, though incitement to racial hatred is punishable by a jail term of six to eight months. Blasphemy is also illegal, and censorship remains an ongoing issue. There are several daily newspapers and weekly publications in Maltese and English, as well as radio and television stations. Residents also have access to Italian television broadcasts. The government does not restrict internet access.
The constitution establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion, and the state grants subsidies only to Catholic schools. While the population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, small communities of Muslims, Jews, and Protestants are tolerated and respected. There is one Muslim private school. Academic freedom is respected.
The constitution provides for freedoms of assembly and association, and the government generally respects these rights in practice. Nongovernmental organizations investigating human rights issues are able to operate without state interference. The law recognizes the right to form and join trade unions, and limits on the right to strike were eased in 2002. A compulsory arbitration clause in the country’s labor law allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers; however, this clause is not often used.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, though the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights has criticized poor detention conditions for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Migrant workers are reportedly often exploited and subjected to substandard working conditions.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender. However, women are underrepresented in government, occupying only about 9 percent of seats in the parliament. A law legalizing divorce was adopted in July 2011 and came into effect in October. Violence against women remains a problem. Abortion is strictly prohibited, even in cases of rape or incest. Malta is a source and destination country for human trafficking for the purposes of forced labor and sexual exploitation. While the government created a trafficking coordinator and monitoring board in 2011, the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report criticized Malta for not meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of human trafficking.