Malta remains the only country in the European Union that maintains an 18-month, mandatory detention policy for all irregular migrants upon arrival. This paper examines the role that detention has played in the Maltese government's response to the flows of irregular immigration to the island in the 21st century. It argues that detention is symbolic of the crisis narrative that the Maltese government has constructed as a response to these immigration flows in order to gain more practical and financial support from the European Union. The detention policy also serves to reinforce this interpretation of irregular immigration. Such a portrayal, combined with the use of detention as a deterrent, produces detrimental consequences for the migrant population, as well as the wider Maltese society. The paper draws on over 50 interviews, conducted by the author, with government officials, non-governmental organisations, and migrants and refugees on the island. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.