The role of citizens in the politics of insecurity: Malta and Sub-Saharan migrants

Based on a critical security studies perspective, this post analyses the impact of Maltese detention policies beyond the walls of the closed reception centres. Critical security scholars have initiated a constructivist view on (in)security in developing the concept of securitisation which refers to the social construction of a threat. While critical security studies has mainly focused on security professionals, less attention has been paid to the role of citizens in the process of securitisation. The paper that this blog post is based on intends to fill this gap. It argues that Maltese citizens, along with Maltese civil servants, play a role in the politics of insecurity directed towards Sub-Saharan migrants. Maltese detention policies provided incentives for the national community to discriminate against migrants. Beyond governmental actions, migrants are also controlled in their daily activities by locals, which (re)produces insecurities. Empirical data is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Malta between 2010 and 2013, which includes observations with migrants, and interviews with policy-makers.


This post focuses on migration detention in Malta and its impact on Sub-Saharan migrants’ everyday lives. It looks at detention practices since Malta joined the European Union in 2004. Following Malta’s accession to the EU, Maltese political debate has been consistently focused on how to combat the “immigration threat” (Baldacchino 2009). Claiming that Sub-Saharan migrants arriving by boat threaten national security, Maltese authorities developed a mandatory detention policy from 2005 to 2015. While the detention of foreigners existed in Malta before 2005, it was an exceptional penal sanction. When the island-state joined the EU, it became a widespread administrative punishment.

Based on critical security studies, this paper deals with Maltese detention policy beyond the walls of the closed reception centres. Critical security scholars have initiated a constructivist view on (in)security. They have developed the concept of securitisation, which refers to the social construction of a threat. Securitisation was first defined as a process in which an issue is labelled as a security problem (Williams 1998, 435). The importance of practices was then emphasised and a research agenda focusing on security professionals was introduced (CASE Collective 2006, 7). Consequently, less attention has been paid to the role of citizens in the process of securitisation. My research intends to fill this gap. It argues that Maltese citizens, along with Maltese civil servants, play a role in the politics of insecurity directed towards Sub-Saharan migrants.

Empirical data is based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Malta between 2010 and 2013. My fieldwork included observations with migrants, and interviews with policy-makers. Ethnographic observations with migrants were conducted in closed and open centres as well as in the community. I volunteered with the Malta Red Cross which gave me access to the centres as a humanitarian volunteer. Moreover, ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Malta enabled me to explore migrants’ everyday lives post-detention.

This post is divided as follows: first, I will describe the experiences of migrants in detention in Malta. I will show that governmental practices of detention produce migrant insecurities. Second, I will focus on the experiences of migrants who are released from detention and who live in the Maltese community. I will show that, outside detention, Maltese citizens reproduce migrant insecurities.  

Mandatory detention: producing migrant insecurities

Migrants mainly come from Sub-sahara Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Nigeria and Ghana). They depart from Libya and head towards continental Europe, but end up being rescued at sea by the Armed Forces of Malta. They are then transferred to the island territory and most of them apply for asylum with the Maltese authorities.

Upon arrival, migrants are incarcerated at the Immigration Police Department where they are fingerprinted, photographed and searched. A police number is allocated to each new arrival. The first experience of migrants in Malta is therefore a police-related procedure.

Once the incarceration procedure is carried out, migrants are transferred to closed centres. They are kept in military barracks and supervised by the guards of the Detention Services. Until 2015, the time spent in detention could last up to 18 months. Detention frames migrants as dangerous, following the logic that they have to be separated for months from the rest of the population. This then contributes to the social construction of a threat; it is part of the securitisation process of migration (Huysmans 2000).

Moreover, detention produces migrant insecurities. For instance, it affects their mental health. Mental illness in the migrant community has been such a significant problem that a separate ward was opened at the Mount Carmel Psychiatric Hospital specifically for migrants (Debono, 2013). This is a consequence of the dehumanisation process that detainees go through. According to Daniela Debono, the experience of detention makes migrants feel “less than human” (Debono, 2013), which shows how mandatory detention has a deep impact on individuals’ perceptions of themselves.

Once migrants are released from detention, they are placed in open centres. During the time of my fieldwork, Malta had three main open centres: a hangar on a former military base, a village of containers, and a former school closed for insalubrity. A governmental agency is responsible for managing the open centres. Its main responsibility is to register residents on a regular basis. If those centres are labelled as open, their functioning nonetheless tends to confine migrants socially and spatially (Lemaire 2014).

Placement in open centres is not compulsory and migrants can also be found living amongst the Maltese community. They work in Malta, they rent accommodation, and many of them hold documents. However, when they live ‘outside’ the centres, migrants still claim to experience a prison-environment. This led me to consider how migrants’ experiences outside detention mirror migrants’ experiences inside detention. One of the main results that came out of my fieldwork was the role that Maltese citizens play in this mirroring process.

The role of Maltese citizens: reproducing migrant insecurities

The securitisation process is reproduced in the high-level of racial discrimination. Although, in terms of numbers, the Sub-Saharan community is not the largest, it suffers the most discrimination among migrant communities on the island (Bradford and Clark 2014).  According to the 2009 European Union Minorities and Discrimination Survey, Malta was the country in which Sub-Saharans reported the highest rate of discrimination. Moreover, a 2010 European Network Against Racism Report identified the Sub-Saharan community as the most discriminated and vulnerable migrant community in Malta. Discrimination may apply in respect to housing and labour market accesses.

Sub-Saharan migrants play a specific role in the Maltese labour market. They work either in the construction sector or in the tourist industry. They are usually employed illegally on a seasonal basis and their occupation is based at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. Migrants represent a cheap workforce and they are more likely to accept poor working conditions. In cases of exploitation, the likelihood that they will lodge a complaint is very low. In that sense, employers actively participate to the reproduction of migrant insecurities.

Discrimination also appears in relation to access to public spaces such as buses, bars or night clubs. During an interview conducted in 2010, a Sub-Saharan migrant gave an account of the discriminatory practices he faced on a daily basis:

“I can’t get into a nightclub. There is one bar close to my place. I often go there alone. The owner allows me to go in. Once I talked to him. I asked him why the Maltese often do not let black people enter bars. He answered that if I drink alone that’s ok. However, if I were to bring my friends with me, he wouldn’t let me in because it would scare off customers. I told him not to worry. I won’t bring my friends.” (Interview, 18 January 2010)

The relationship between the bartender and the migrant is revealing of the way in which migrants are not only supervised through governmental actions, but also through the daily interactions that are part of border security practices. Due to everyday discrimination practices, migrants experience everyday life in Malta as if every Maltese were a detention guard from an island-prison. The extract further suggests that, following Vaughan-Williams (2008, 64), “the mobilisation of European citizens as agents of surveillance constitutes a new form of generalised border-work whereby ‘good’ subjects are constantly on the look-out for ‘suspicious’ or ‘risky’ subjects”.   

However, some cultural spaces – such as bars, night clubs or churches – bring Maltese and Sub-Saharans together, which means that migrants are not totally isolated. Moreover, in 2010 a network was founded by Sub-Saharan migrants in order to raise their voices within the immigration debate. Nevertheless, instances of resistance remain at the margins of society.


To conclude, my paper has demonstrated that detention practices have framed Sub-Saharan migrants as a threat, and that this produces insecurities. Beyond governmental actions, migrants are also controlled in their daily activities by locals. As a result, the local population plays a role in the reproduction of migrant insecurities. However, this element is usually bypassed because existing research tends to focus on governmental practices and official discourses alone. As such, the literature may underestimate how insecurities are produced through ordinary social interactions. This bias could be overcome by studying insecurities through the analysis of everyday life experiences. 

PhotoLéa Lemaire is a Doctor in Political Science. Her PhD dissertation focused on the development of migration policies in Malta since it joined the European Union (EU) in 2004. Using the concept of transnational governmentality, she analysed how migrants in Malta are constructed as an EU problem, how they are detained on the island and how they become the object of resettlement and relocation policies. Léa Lemaire is currently a Research Associate at the Institute of Political Science in Aix-en-Provence, France (CHERPA) and at ULB in Brussels, Belgium (GERME). Her research now deals with the relocation of asylum-seekers within the EU. She looks at the relocation scheme adopted by the Council in 2015 which aims to transfer asylum-seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states.


Baldacchino, G. 2009. Pangs of nascent nationalism from the nationless state? Euro coins and undocumented migrants in Malta since 2004. Nations and Nationalism 15 (1): 148-165.

Bradford, S. and M. Clark, 2014. Strangers on the Shore: Sub-Saharan African “Irregular” Migrants in Malta. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 12 (1): 9-26.

CASE Collective, 2006. Critical Approaches to Security in Europe. A Network Manifesto. Security Dialogue 37 (4) 443–487.

Debono, D. 2013. “Less than human”: The detention of irregular immigration in Malta. Race & Class 55 (2): 60–81.

Huysmans, J. 2000. The European Union and the Securitization of Migration. Journal of Common Market Studies 38 (15): 751-777.

Lemaire, L. 2014. Islands and a Carceral Environment: Maltese Policy in Terms of Irregular Migration. Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies 12 (2): 143-160.

Vaughan-Williams, N. 2008. Borderwork beyond Inside/Outside? Frontex, the Citizen–Detective and the War on Terror. Space and Polity 12 (1): 63-79.

Williams, M.C. 1998. “Modernity, identity and security: a comment on the ‘Copenhagen controversy’”. Review of International Studies 23 (3): 435-440.



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