Freedom in the World
Conditions for immigrants seeking entrance into the European Union (EU) through Malta improved in 2010, largely due to agreements reached between the EU and Libya. Several EU countries also agreed to accept a large number of asylum seekers who had been awaiting relocation from Malta, which helped to reduce the portion of immigrants Malta was required to absorb.
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.
Edward Fenech Adami, the outgoing prime minister and veteran PN leader, 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 MLP; the PN won 49.3 percent of the vote, while the MLP captured 48.9 percent.However, results in the country’s 13 five-seat electoral constituencies gave the MLP 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 MLP leader George Abela was sworn in as president in April 2009. Abela is 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.
In a 2008 agreement with Italy, Libya pledged to strengthen its border control and take steps to curb immigration to the EU, which resulted in a significant decline in unauthorized immigration to Malta in 2010. According to the National Statistics Office of Malta, only one boat carrying 27 immigrants was documented to have landed in Malta during the year compared to 84 in 2008. The pilot intra-EU Relocation of Refugees from Malta (EUREMA) programme that began in 2010 also helped reduce the number of immigrants that Malta would need to accept; the United States and several EU countries absorbed some 1,000 immigrants who had been awaiting relocation from Malta. While the number of people being held in Maltese detention centers had decreased, incoming refugees and asylum-seekers could still face mandatory detention of up to 18 months under Maltese law. The forcible return of asylum seekers in 2010 to their home country, where they faced a high risk of human rights abuses, violated Malta’s obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.In October 2010, the EU passed an Association Agreement, which will provide Libya with more than 50 million euros over the next two years to assist in improving border control and providing better protection for asylum seekers.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
Malta is an electoral democracy. Members of the 65-seat unicameral legislature, the House of Representatives, are elected through proportional representation with a single-transferable-vote (STV) arrangement, allowing voters to rank competing candidates by preference. Members are elected for five-year terms, and lawmakers in turn elect the president, who also serves for five years. The president names the prime minister, usually the leader of the majority party or coalition. Elections are generally free and fair. Following the 2008 elections, four extra seats were added to the parliament, for a total of 69 members, to ensure that the party winning the popular vote could obtain a legislative majority.
The ruling PN and opposition MLP dominate national politics. The smaller Democratic Alternative party also competes, but is not currently represented in the parliament.
Malta faced a series of corruption scandals in 2010. In August, the mayor of San Gwann was charged with soliciting bribes and his son received a two-year suspended jail sentence on corruption charges for soliciting bribes for waste contracts. In August, the mayor of Santa Venera resigned after corruption charges were brought against her. Separately, the deputy mayor of Gharb resigned in Augustafter statutory rape charges were brought against him. A survey conducted by Malta Today in 2010 indicated that only 20 percent of the population felt that corruption was being fought at the local and national levels. In September 2010, the Maltese government presented the Whistleblower’s Act in an effort to combat corruption.Private sector employers would be required to establish a whistleblower’s office to address allegations of irregularity, providing workers with the opportunity to report corrupt activities at their place of employment. Whistleblowers would be protected from prosecution or disciplinary measures unless they reported allegations to the media before passing the claims through the whistleblower’s office. The act would also add a special investigator position to Malta’s Permanent Commission against Corruption. The bill had not yet been passed by year’s end. Malta was ranked 37 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
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. Finance Minister Tonio Fenech filed a libel suit against two Malta Today editors in 2009 for challenging his integrity as a minister. The newspaper filed a counter-protest in November of that year, and no further action was taken against the paper in 2010. In February 2010, student organizations joined together to form the Front Against Censorship, organizing a march against the country’s blasphemy laws and a clause in the Press Act which prohibits printed criticism of public morals. 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. However, a compulsory arbitration clause in the country’s Employment and Industrial Relations Act allows the government to force a settlement on striking workers, contravening the International Labor Organization’s Convention 87. The clause is reportedly used only when all other channels for arbitration have been exhausted. Approximately 55 percent of workers are unionized.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. Prison conditions generally meet international standards, though both the Council of Europe’s Commission for Human Rights and the EU Justice Commissioner have criticized poor detention conditions for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. Migrant workers are reportedly often exploited and subject to substandard working conditions. In July 2010, a group of immigrants introduced a “Network for Equality” in order to voice their own opinions on the immigration debate and pressure the Maltese government on certain migration and integration issues. Malta won a bid in 2009 to host the European Commission’s European Asylum Support Office, which will facilitate communication and cooperation between EU member states on asylum applications. However, the office had not been opened by the end of 2010.
Women occupy only 6 of the 69 seats in parliament, though they now hold two cabinet posts. Divorce is illegal, and violence against women remains a problem. Abortion is prohibited, even in cases of rape or incest. Malta is a destination for men and women trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation.