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The Maltese: I’m not racist, but…
Are the Maltese racist, or simply concerned about migration?
5 July 2012, 12:00am
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.
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, ...