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Malta continued to face challenges related to immigration in 2012, including international criticism for its detention policies and poor conditions in its holding centers for refugees and asylum seekers. The deaths of at least two African immigrants during the year appeared to be linked to racist attitudes.
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 European Union (EU) membership, which Malta finally achieved in 2004.
In the March 2008 elections, Lawrence Gonzi led the PN to a narrow victory over the Labour Party (PL), the renamed MLP. 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.
Over the last decade, Malta, which is centrally located in the Mediterranean, has received an increasing number of immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, who subsequently settle in the country or proceed to other EU countries. In October 2012, Malta hosted the 5+5 meeting (Western Mediterranean Forum)—a gathering of the heads of state of 10 European and North African countries that border the Western Mediterranean—at which the creation of a joint task force to tackle migration problems in these nations was suggested.
Poor conditions at holding centers for refugees and asylum seekers have led to rioting and even death. In May 2012, the International Commission of Jurists released a report condemning Malta’s mandatory detention policies—under Maltese law, refugees and asylum seekers are detained for up to 18 months—and inhumane conditions that violate the European Convention on Human Rights. In September 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees published guidelines aimed at Malta and other countries that detain asylum seekers in order to reduce the number of detainees and increase their human rights standards. Also in September, the European Parliament proposed changing the way Malta detains child migrants who are currently held under the same regulations as adults.
A 2011 report found 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. In 2012, racist attitudes allegedly led to the deaths of at least two immigrants: Malian Mamadou Kamara was beaten to death by guards at the Safi detention center, and Sudanese Osama Al Shzliaoy was beaten to death by two Romanian men in Paceville one week after a man was acquitted of killing an immigrant from Darfur in the same neighborhood in 2009.
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. In November, 2012, talks began to change the voting law to include the right to vote for Maltese living overseas.
A 2012 Eurobarometer revealed that 88 percent of Maltese saw corruption as a major problem plaguing the country, in both politics and business. In October 2012, John Dalli, a Maltese politician who served as the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, was forced to resign following reports by the European Anti-Fraud Office that Dalli had been aware of a bribery attempt involving the tobacco industry and tobacco legislation.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and the press, though incitement to racial hatred is punishable by a jail term of six to eight months. In October 2012, Norman Lowell was cleared of inciting racial hatred in an article published in 2008. 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. In September 2012, Malta’s first Freedom of Information Act went into effect. Also in September, Claudette Pace, the presenter of a popular daytime show Sellili, filed a judicial review against the Public Broadcasting Services for replacing her after she announced her intention to run on the Nationalist Party ticket in the next general election. By the end of the year, she had left her TV program in order to pursue a career in politics. In October 2012, the Broadcasting Authority ruled that political parties had the right to choose which party representatives appeared on television, rather than allowing the station to choose which participants to invite to its programs. The ruling came after the PL sent one parliamentarian instead of another to appear on the show Bondi+. 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 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 yet seldom-used arbitration clause in the country’s labor law allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers.
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 came into effect in October 2011. 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.