23 July 2003

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Police hunt for illegal immigrants stumbles on nuns’ compassion

By Kurt Sansone
While the police are hunting for the remaining 30 illegal immigrants that have been on the run since Saturday humanitarian and religious organisations might be providing the escapees with shelter.
This is a new twist in the saga that started on Saturday when police officials discovered that 54 illegal immigrants had escaped from detention quarters at the police depot. The escape has led to an internal police investigation, a country-wide search for the escapees, which has yielded more illegal immigrants and shone the spotlight once again on the complexity of this modern-day affliction.
Three mattresses were found on the roof of the convent belonging to the Good Shepherd Sisters in Balzan on Monday night, when neighbours alerted the police to the possibility of people on the roof of the nunnery.
The police caught eight illegal immigrants, who escaped on Saturday. However, during the operation two escapees jumped off a roof injuring themselves in the process. One illegal immigrant is in danger of dying from the injuries sustained in the four-storey drop.
When asked yesterday by the press whether he believed that charitable institutions were helping the escaped illegal immigrants, Police Commissioner John Rizzo said: "What can we do? Unfortunately not everybody is perhaps co-operating with us."
Mr Rizzo refrained from pointing any fingers but confirmed that three mattresses had been found on the nuns’ convent in Balzan.
Meanwhile, during the hour-long press conference at the police headquarters, a visibly shaken Mr Rizzo said that an internal investigation had been instituted to determine who was responsible for the spectacular escape.
He would not reveal any details on the inquiry but confirmed that the investigation was also delving into the possibility that police officers could have helped in the escape.
"If there was any lack on our part we are ready to take the necessary actions," Mr Rizzo said. He added that a number of police officers who were guarding the illegal immigrants or who had contact with them were being questioned.
When asked by a member of the press, Mr Rizzo denied that the police inspector responsible for the detention area in the depot was under house arrest saying that the inspector had been hospitalised.
A country-wide search for the escapees has led police to capture 24 of the 54 escapees. However, the police have also captured 86 other foreign nationals, who were in Malta without the necessary permits. Of the 86 illegal immigrants, 36 have already been deported to their country of origin.
With over 1,600 illegal immigrants being kept in make-shift detention centres at the army barracks, the SAG Ta’ Kandja HQ and the police depot, Mr Rizzo said the country faced a serious problem. He also half-heartedly admitted that the lack of adequate detention facilities is one of the reasons why country-wide police raids are held less often.
During the press conference Mr Rizzo took umbrage at press reports that quoted illegal immigrants as saying that they were given just one litre of water per day and food infested with cockroaches. "These are unfounded claims," Mr Rizzo said while chiding the press for publishing such statements overlooking the fact that non-governmental organisations working with illegal immigrants have also commented on similar issues in the past.
Mr Rizzo explained that illegal immigrants are not kept under maximum security because they are not prisoners. "We give them breakfast, lunch and dinner and they have access to unlimited water through water dispensers that have been installed," the police commissioner said.
The great escape on Saturday has focussed the spotlight once again on the issue of illegal immigration and the country’s capability to deal with such an influx.
But while Malta’s security forces are stretched to the brim silence has characterised the political level.

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Editor: Saviour Balzan
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