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The Maltese: I’m not racist, but…

Are the Maltese racist, or simply concerned about migration?

James Debono
5 July 2012, 12:00am
Ignorance of international law and Malta's obligation could be a factor in the widespread perception that migrants are criminals.
Migrants as a burden

The view that migrants do not contribute in the economic and cultural field could amplify the perception that migrants are a burden on the host society, thus making the Maltese more prone to racist or xenophobic sentiments.

According to a recent survey by Eurobarometer, only 32% think that immigration enriches Malta economically or culturally. On the other hand, 55% think that immigrants do not contribute at all.

This makes the Maltese the fifth least likely among the EU 27 to think that migrants contribute in these two fields.

This contrasts starkly with 81% of the Swedes, and 53% of all Europeans who think that immigrants do contribute economically and culturally.

One reason for this is that immigration is always presented to the public as a problem and very rarely as an opportunity for economic growth and general prosperity.

Despite the perception that migrants do not contribute to Maltese society, 86%, more than the EU average believe Member States should offer protection and asylum to people in need.

But the Maltese tend to think that this "burden" should be shared with other Europeans. In fact, the Maltese also emerged as staunch believers in burden sharing, saying asylum seekers should be more equally shared across the EU (85%) as well as the costs of providing asylum (89%) - in both cases, above the EU (80%) average.


What surveys show:

4.3%    would allow migrants drown in the sea rather than bring them to shore
55%     think migrants do not contribute to economy and culture

50.4%  think that less than 500 migrants of 12,500 arrivals between 2004 and 2009 left the island

41%     would not like an Arab as a neighbour

63%     would advise their children not to marry an African migrant

75%     have no contact with immigrants whatever



Exposure to global culture

Although Maltese youths are more exposed to global cultural influences - which are inherently multicultural in fields ranging from sports or music - this does not necessarily make them any less racist or xenophobic.

Judging by studies in other fields, Mario Balotelli's Euro 2012 goals did not really alter the perception of how Malta's Italy supporters viewed immigrants.

This is definitely the case with Hip-hop culture - the subject of a study conducted by MA graduate Sue Falzon, which explored the attitudes of young people who identify with hip hop culture towards irregular immigrants.

This style of music is largely considered to be the primary form of expression used by African Americans to narrate life in violent ghetto conditions, while propagating violent images, which could also perpetuate racial stereotypes.

The study focused on youths who frequent Havana, a Paceville nightclub renowned both for the style of music played and the variety of ethnicities generally present.

A number of the youths questioned during the study openly admit to being racist and say that although they feel the way they do, they do not actively show their feelings while out on a night of clubbing.

It was interesting to discover that although the youths identify with hip-hop, those who claim to be racist can see no underlying inconsistency in their beliefs.

According to Falzon, the segregation of immigrants in detention centres from the rest of the community has contributed to racism in Malta, which relies on uneducated stereotypes about the immigrants generally originating from Africa.

It was pointed out during the study that the same Maltese who admit to being racist, do not find any difficulty in admitting enjoyment when abroad and mingling with people of different races. The problem arises when they consider that since the island is small, its resources are scarce and should not be shared with those who are not Maltese.

Another concern was a fear that their culture may be at risk of disappearing or changing in such a way to suit the immigrants.

"I have English friends who cannot bear the idea that they are living in a country which is no longer theirs with so many black people around. God forbid Malta becomes like that. Malta is ours and should be exclusively ours. It is our country," one of the respondents said.

The author concludes that for Maltese young people, 'the stranger is not 'the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow,' but is instead the 'person who comes today and stays tomorrow' but is never integrated into the community.

A problem of numbers

The perception of immigration as a crisis is also rooted in wild misconceptions regarding the actual scale of the problem facing Malta, a MaltaToday survey carried out in 2009 showed.

According to the survey, 50.4% believed that fewer than 500 migrants have been repatriated or left the island in the past five years - a figure disproved by official statistics showing that more than 2,000 had been repatriated between 2004 and 2009. 5.7% believe no immigrants at all left the island in the same period.

This problem is further compounded by the lack of data on migrants who left Malta through other channels.

The survey also showed that 24% of respondents believe that more than 6,000 irregular immigrants are living in Malta. A staggering 12% believe the figure is higher than 10,000.

Just under half the respondents (44.3%) correctly think that the number of immigrants currently residing in Malta stands at between 4,000 and 6,000.

Strangers in our midst

Lack of contact with the immigrant community could be another reason why the Maltese are xenophobic.

A MaltaToday survey conducted in 2009 showed that 75% of the Maltese had no contact whatever with illegal immigrants. Only 25% had ever spoken to an illegal immigrant once in their life.

Surveys conducted separately by SOS Malta and the UNHCR (Malta Office) in 2011 have confirmed the absence of integration between the Maltese and the immigrant community, with language - as well as perceptions - being the biggest barriers.

Several migrants participating in the study said some Maltese did not allow them to sit near them on the buses. Others showed their displeasure when they moved into their neighbourhood.

The migrants said they had little or no contact with the Maltese, however they noted that the Maltese made a distinction between migrants who were granted humanitarian protection, and others who were seen as being economic migrants.

'Let them drown'

Ignorance of international law and Malta's international obligations also prevails and could be a factor in the widespread perception that migrants are criminals.

Asked how the authorities should respond to a distress call from a drowning boat full of illegal immigrants, 4.3% callously  replied that the authorities should take no action and let the immigrants drown.

A further 55.3% replied that the authorities should offer their help on the high seas and allow the migrants to proceed with their journey - something which is technically illegal under international law.

Another 38% replied that Malta should bring the migrants to Maltese shores to offer them assistance.

Immigrants are also perceived to be criminals. A Times of Malta survey carried out by sociologist Mario Vassallo in 2002 - the year which saw the first boats arriving - showed a widespread perception that asylum seekers were breaking the law.

All participants were in turn asked whether Malta should accept that persons who end up in Malta after a sea journey were breaking the law. The overwhelming majority (69%) think that Malta should consider such persons to be breaking the law. Only 27.3% disagreed, while the remaining 3.7% were not confident enough to give an answer either way.

The idea of immigrants as being "illegal" is perpetuated by politicians like Labour spokesperson Michael Falzon who in 2009 made a fine distinction between normal immigration and "illegal immigration" which involves people who do not carry documents.

The invasion myth

Anti-immigrant sentiment is also rooted in the perception that Malta is facing an "invasion": a phrase coined by politicians in the past years.

The MaltaToday survey carried out in 2009 which asked respondents to state their main concerns on immigration, showed that 25.3% are concerned Malta is being "invaded" or "swamped" by illegal immigrants. A further 21.3% believe that Malta does not have sufficient space to accommodate migrants.

The idea that Malta cannot take the quantities of migrants arriving by boats ties in perfectly with the Labour Party's proposal to establish the "sustainable" numbers it can host. 

In its 30-point proposals presented in 2009, the party even proposed suspending Malta's international obligations if such a quota is surpassed.

But the idea that Malta is being invaded is also perpetuated by exponents on the other side of the political divide.

A study of Maria Pisani from Integra (Social Justice for Illegal bodies) highlighted the "invasion theme" in the discourse of Maltese politicians.

In 2005, Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg is quoted saying that Malta "is facing a veritable invasion of irregular migrants sapping our financial and human resources."

'Taking our jobs'

A more tangible concern is that expressed by 32% of respondents who think that immigrants are taking Maltese jobs. This concern is highest among skilled workers (54%) and unskilled workers (37%).

Significantly, 5.3% claim that a family member has lost his job because an illegal immigrant was employed in his or her place.

When respondents were asked where they are most likely to meet illegal immigrants, 7.7% replied that they frequent them at work.

The perception that Malta is facing a crisis on immigration is also highest among the occupational groups at the lower end of the labour market.

Yet this perception contrasts with official statistics showing that asylum seekers constitute only 14% of the total number of legally employed foreigners, and most of them occupy lower-end jobs in the construction and tourism industries.

The government's expense on immigration is considered to be  the main concern expressed by those in the higher occupational groups.

In other countries, concern about migration is often linked to crime, but this is not the case in Malta.

Asked about crime, although 3.3% of respondents claim to have been the victims of crimes committed by immigrants, only 1.7% consider crime and lack of security to be one of their two main concerns regarding immigration.

This contrasts with the situation in other countries like Italy, where concern about immigration is mostly related to security issues and crime.

Overtly racist concerns are only raised by a minority of respondents. Only 2% are concerned by mixing of different races. But an erosion of Maltese identity concerns nearly 4%, and another 2% fear the growth of the Muslim population.

The 2002 survey carried out by Mario Vassallo also showed that the major concern of the Maltese regarding the effect of illegal migration is primarily economic.

Raw racism

Although surveys seem to suggest that the main Maltese concerns on migration are mostly economic or spatial, other surveys seem to suggest a more visceral  racist streak.

A survey conducted by MaltaToday in May 2006 showed that 62.5% would advise their children not to marry an African migrant. 23.9% would not even allow them to do so. Only 13% would not mind having a black migrant as a son- or daughter-in-law.

But greater tolerance and appreciation of multiculturalism is shown when children are involved. In fact, 45% view the presence of migrant children in class as an opportunity for their children to learn on a different culture. Yet 42% would like to have these children medically tested for disease.

Surprisingly, even when it comes to emotional issues like love and marriage, the younger generation was more racist than older generations. 24% of 18-34 year olds would not allow a son or daughter to marry an irregular migrant from Africa. Among those aged over 55, the percentage of those objecting to such a marriage falls to 19%.

This racist streak is confirmed in other surveys. A survey carried out by TV programme Xarbank in 2004 showed that four out of every 10 Maltese people would not like to have an Arab national as their neighbour. The survey results matched those of the European Values Survey carried out by Anthony Abela in 1999.

In fact, 40.6% of the respondents said they would not like it if an Arab became their neighbour. Other nationals would not be welcome either: Nigerian (32.5%), Jew (30.1%), Chinese (26.9%), Italian (20.5%) and American (19.3%).

In the case of all nationalities or races, the majority of respondents said they would be disappointed if their daughter or son married a foreigner. The highest percentage of those who said their reaction would be a negative one was for an Arab spouse (69.5 %), followed by a Nigerian (64.3 %), a Jew (63.1 %), a Chinese (61 %), an American and an Italian (50.2 % in each case).

Those who said they were not worried about different cultures infiltrating in Malta (47.4 %) perfectly balanced out those who said they were concerned (47.4 %), while another 5.2 % said they were undecided.

 

James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...

Saviour Pirotta
In my personal experience, some sections of the Maltese population are extremely racist. I emigrated to the UK in the mid 80s and every time I returned home with British friends of Indian or Caribbean origin, they were subjected to constant racist taunting. People need to get real about immigration. We Maltese have gone knocking on other countries' doors long before we were a part of the EU. Some of us went legally, many not. Indeed, many of the people I spoke to about Malta joining the EU gave the ability to go and work in other countries as their main reason for voting in favour of accession. Can we blame others if they want to do the same?
Basil Borg
The Maltese might be racist 'bil-parol'; foriegners bil-fatti! Rio Tinto, just one conglomerate, is more wealthy than the GDP of all African combined; it operates in Africa and is based in London! Then we get the famous African leaders who spend weeks renting whole floors at the Ritz in Paris and elsewhere! Only 40years we were a colony, and then come people like James who have the temerity to call us racist whilst most 50+ Maltese were born in a colony! Yep; we should open up our frontier of this tiny island and become once again, 'the nurse of the Mediterrenean' devoting our less than average European GDP, to save, help and live the idealist life helping anyone who wants to come here because the good doers say so! I help people in Ivory Coast, Egypt, Lebanon Turkey and Malta, but this does not mean that anyone is invited to come and live on this tiny barren island; 2000 years of colonialism has been enough and I should not carry the original sin of wealthy Europeans, Americans and lousy and corrupt good for nothing African leaders.
M J
I think every serious newspaper editor has a duty to remove racist comments which bloggers write as these inadvertently incite hate and subconsciously make it OK to express such irrational and illogical sentiments based on prejudice. The argument that this would be a form of censorship and therefore a limitation to freedom of speech is a fallacious one. There are standards in every civilised society which have to be observed. Besides there are plenty of other sites devoted solely to the promotion of hate based on fear and illogical arguments where racists can vent their misplaced anger.
Larry conti
I'M NOT A racist, I'VE GOT A BLACK CAT AT HOME TO START WITH.
Joe Borg
Come off it - off course Maltese are racist. People who have experienced racism - they themselves will do the same without a second thought. We are fresh out of 150 years of British occupation - the very foundation on the British empire was based on racism. Here in Malta - if you were Maltese - that automatically made it impossible to advance in your career. Then we have the church who found it convenient to preach racism against the french, the Turks and just about anybody who threatened its privileged. They had 400 years to hone their skills - the whole era of the knights of Malta was nothing more than a pirate state hiding behind religious and racism bigotry. In more recent times - we have a government which has replaced the previous imperial rulers and routinely abuse our rights are citizens. We may be in Europe - but in our own country, we are not worth half a European of another nationality. Maltese are paid far less money for doing far more work. Foreigners are allowed to carry out their business in Malta and pay little taxes, except for high legal fees. Overall - i am surprised we are not even more racist given our history. I think we should come to terms with the reality of our history - both past and current. Then we should eliminate the racism against Maltese which is still a government policy in this country - and then finally come to realism the ugliness of racism we show to others less fortunate than us.
Jessica Smith
How many are you hosting in your palaces and empty convents and keeping them at your own expense? Stop preaching. We do not want to listen to you. We do not want the illegal immigrants in Malta.
petbus
@ Karl Consiglio So, if a migrant got hurt whilst playing with our national team and couldn't continue the game, and our poor national team lost the match, would you still threaten to send the migrant back to his country???
Rosalie Degiorgio
Totally agree with Mr.Guidocforte. It is a big problem for Malta. Its a problem for every country so even more for this little island. But there is NO excuse for mis-treating or even worse killing anyone! It is hurtful to read some people's comments or listen to people's comments in the streets. These are human being for God sake! Yes I understand it is a problem for our country. But that does give us any right to mistreat any human being? Is this how our catholic country thinks? Plus not only africans work in Malta..what about sicilians?romanians?bulgarians? russians? Are these ok cos of their white skin? I wish that Maltese people try to be more tollerant one day. Yes it is a problem but nobody should be killed or mistreated. The problem is that nothing is being done to try integrate these people or give them work that need to be done in the country which nobody accept to do. Also education in school should start so kids realise that the world is NOT only made from Maltese but alot of different people and cultures. With racism even the adopted kids of maltese couples are suffering!
Karl Consiglio
I believe in turning problems into opportunities, say I'm sure that a couple of migrants, given citizenship, can help us form a much better, more promising National football team, especially with the threat that if they don't have Malta win they get sent back.
david paul pace
what exactly is your point quoting old surveys and giving irrelevant figures? Illegal immigration is caused by turmoil and inequality. The root cause is not the Maltese or their attitude. The root cause is the regimes all over Africa. The same regimes that many European governments have no problem doing business with. You would do better looking at how to end the killing and poverty in Africa rather than trying to pin it on the Maltese. If you ask me it is the EU that is fueling the racist attitude by telling us that they do not want these immigrants on their soil and not the maltese politicians.
guido cutajar
Dak li jinkweta lili huwa il fatt li nitkellmu fuq emigranti illegali li gejjien mil l-Afrika, u ma nghatux kas x`inhu diehel mill l-Ewropa..li nafu zgur huwa li 90% ta dawk li gejjien mill l-Afrika ma iridux joghqodu hawn,u jixtiequ li jitilqu,u dawk li gejjien mill l-Ewropa jigu biex jibqaw hawn.Sa ghanke juzaw iz zwieg ta konvinjenza mal Maltin.Ahjar naraw min qeghed jisfrutta lil dawn il bnedmin, u jitratthom ta skjavi ( qeghed nirreferi kemm ghal bojod u kemm ghas somor hafna ). Dawk li qeghedin juzawhom huma il problema, ghax li kieku iyuhom id dinjita ta haddiema, ihallsuhom kemm suppost, u josservaw il ligi tax xoghol, ibqaw zguri li il Maltin jigu ipreferuti.Kif qeghed isir illum..bilfors li jaqaw ghal dawn il persuni ghax tigihom hafna irhas...Dak li irid jaghmel kull gvern serju...Irazzan ilx xoghol prekarju ta dawn l-individwi.
carlos ellul
If immigrants are such a resource then why no european country is ready to take them off our hands?
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