In the hot and sticky heat of a Maltese evening, I sip a traditional drink made with oranges and spices in an outside bar along the coast of Sliema. My local host is a researcher who questions the detention policy of the country. Daniela is a very brave woman who tells me all about the equally sticky subject of irregular immigration.

Malta is located in the heart of the Mediterranean so has become a frontline state for irregular migration from the African continent, thus the issue has become one of the countries top priorities. Boat migration across the Med has become an increasingly pressing humanitarian challenge. Malta’s immigration policy mainly consists of detention, integration, return and readmission, EU burden-sharing, maritime patrols, and development cooperation as a means of addressing the root causes of migration. The country has experienced one of the largest influxes of undocumented immigrants among EU countries over the last ten years. The challenge for Malta is not about dealing with a large immigrant population but rather handling the steady flow of irregular immigrants washing up on the shores over a very short period of time.

Daniela has been studying in the UK at Sussex University where she produced her doctoral research on irregular immigration in Malta. “I don’t understand why people discriminate and make differences”. Her first real experience dealing with immigration first hand was when she was working on a case of an Eritrean child who was in a detention center. After being thoroughly checked by the guards and taking in the advice to be careful of the immigrants. She went in search of her client and all of the immigrants in the detention center directed her to the child/teenage sitting on the edge of the bed, unable to communicate with anyone clutching a bible in his own language.

During the time spent working on his case she became a volunteer with JRS Malta and as part of her voluntary work and JRS’s mission ‘to accompany migrants’ she returned to the center many times. The needs were diverse – legal, physical, psychological – and many, depending on each case. She recalls other aspects of her experience which including eating, chatting and playing games with the immigrants. She declares that she is against the policy of detention but not against the people, migrants of policy makers.

There are about 4000 immigrants now living in Malta (quite apart, that is, from the 2000 or so in detention) generally free to work and obtain medical and educational facilities in the same way as their Maltese counterparts. They do not receive unemployment benefits and only those granted refugee status receive benefits. Malta is currently the only EU country which practices a policy of automatic detention of all irregular migrants setting foot on Malta, regardless of whether they are asylum-seekers or not. The government’s strict detention policy has been the most contentious aspect of its immigration policy.

The government of Malta, for its part, has justified its strict detention policy on two grounds. First, detention is considered necessary to ensure adequate control of the immigrants during the asylum applications process. Second, detention allows the government to release the immigrants into open centers and the community at large in a well-calibrated and organised manner, so as to minimise the social and other consequences on Maltese society.

There is a strong Catholic ritual of the good Samaritan of which the Maltese are known for their hospitality. Now it seems that the invasion of the Africans is being linked to the16th century invasion by the Ottoman Empire. In actual fact many of the immigrants are Christian and some of the immigrants are even Catholic like the Maltese. She does not understand why people can be against someone that they do not know. Fear also plays a big part: some people even have the fear of aids and diseases from touching the others.

Daniela’s approach to immigration is not typical of the island, or even of young people. Her upbringing and involvement in the active community organisations from a young age developed her sense of human rights and social justice.

Malta was a former colony with a strong sense loyalty to the empire. Now a national identity has been brought about by language and religion, however some scholars would say that Malta has no clear national identity. One of the first governments of Malta after they gained independence encouraged mass emigration. A sense of patriotism was consolidated through independence. Being an island, insularity is unavoidable and cosmopolitanism is difficult to nurture.

Previous Maltese generations lived through the war, then they lived through austerity, and now some would say that the immigrants are coming to destroy the country that the people have built. The island of 400,000 people, due to a number of factors, appears to have been less affected by avoiding the current recession than other European countries especially Southern Europe or the UK.

Immigration is viewed as a problem rather than an issue with the current policies that are in place. There is a need to develop a comprehensive, long-term integration plan which addresses every aspect of the integration issue holistically on a national basis. Consideration must be given to the employment and economic consequences (both positive and negative); the social consequences as young children grow up in Malta and inter-marriage starts to happen; the need to allay racist and xenophobic fears; the educational implications; as well as the positive and negative consequences on the national health and social security and housing systems.

The Maltese voice is counted a lot as voter turnout is high but most area against immigrants. The people that no one sees and the ones that don’t have a voice are very difficult to stand up for. Besides from being ashamed that these things are happening in Malta, there is the added pressure on the social services of a country that has limited resources. This is not just a problem for the immigrants but the same issues affect the general population as well.

“I would advocate very short periods of detention for asylum seekers and open centers which accommodate immigrants for a short period of time together with smaller residential settings for immigrants who find it hard to manage their accommodation. Once people are allowed into society they will integrate”.

No-one really knows exactly how many immigrants are on the island because it seems that some immigrants leave the island illegally. The government has declared that the labour market is unable to absorb irregular immigrants. Malta can not tackle irregular migration on its own. Migrants network for equality have been set up in reaction to a guy getting beat up by bouncers. Laws are not in place here, as they are in the UK. Administrative detention policy and repatriation to home countries needs to be quicker rather than more money spent on security.

There are good and bad stories to be told. There is the story of the hotel being built with the Maltese being paid the most working on the bottom floors, the Arabs working in the middle on half the wages, and the Africans working at the top of the building on the least wages. There are other stories of Maltese families taking immigrants to Sunday lunch, or the Maltese employer looking after his African employee when the worker had an accident. The current situation is not allowing bridges to be built between the host community and the immigrants in search of a better life.

One thing that is as certain as the sun in the sky, if the Maltese society fails to get a grip of the issue there will be more attention on how the island is dealing with the reality of people coming in on boats.

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