The police may receive few reports on the phenomenon, but if the number of people seeking assistance from Caritas is any indication, usury remains a widespread phenomenon in Malta.
The topic was discussed in a lengthy discussion on Saturday’s edition of Andrew Azzopardi on 103, with Fr John Avellino, social worker Bernadette Briffa and volunteer Louis Bellizzi from Caritas’ Foundation for Usury Victims in the studio. A number of calls – including from Archbishop Charles Scicluna, who “cursed” the profits of usurers in his homily last Sunday – were also made.
In her own phone intervention,. Sylvana Gafà, who heads the Victim Support Unit within the Malta Police Force, acknowledged that the police received few reports as she encouraged victims of usury to come forward. Gafà also observed that the ones who do seek the police’s help often do so as a last resort, and consequently the case is often very complicated for the police to deal with.
On the other hand, Briffa highlighted that Caritas was bombarded with calls for help from usury victims, dealing with approximately three new cases every week.
Fr Avellino highlighted that people were not only afraid to report usury to the police, but that cases often fell apart in Court because victims feared testifying against usurers, who often threaten their victims with violence.
Gafà acknowledged this reality, and explained that the police sought various means to give victims to testify against their tormentors and bring them to justice. Police officers would accompany victims in Court, and protection is readily offered: including alternative accommodation in cases where usurers would know where they live.
People on the brink
Many guests spoke on the desperate situation usury victims found themselves in. Among them was psychiatrist Anton Grech, who cited cases of people who were seriously considering ending their lives.
Fr Avellino corroborated this claim, citing similar cases he was personally aware of, but added usury could also lead victims to resort to violence. In fact, Malta has witnessed a number of murders over the years which have been linked to usury.
Though Fr Avellino wished not to name names, he recounted a well-known usurer who was killed in a bar. In this case, he added ruefully, his nephew took over the “business.”
In spite of the frequent threats of violence usurers might make, Bellizzi highlighted that ultimately, usurers stood to lose if they murdered their debtors. Usury victims, however, would be free of debt if their usurers were gone, tempting them to resort to an extreme measure.
Bellizzi added that in his 8 years of volunteering in the sector, he came across a number of murders of usurers, but never the other way round.
Fr Avellino emphasised, however, that loan sharks often resorted to threats and violence.
“I know of people who pay visits to their victims with a gun in hand, threatening to kill their loved ones,” he said. Criminal damage was another tactic, with usurers paying people to torch their debtors’ car, or even threatening to set fire to their homes.