Marsa and its migrants: ‘Without a proper solution, they are not going anywhere’

A problem of our own making: without a proper integration policy that puts unemployed Africans into jobs, the 'ghettoisation' of Marsa is inevitable

Yannick Pace
20 September 2017, 9:26am
A ‘solidarity walk’ with the people of Marsa is being held today under the backdrop of what seems like a daily barrage of new reports of crimes committed by African migrants in the locality.

The organisers of the walk have said their intention is to draw the government’s attention to a problem that must be addressed. But the planned presence of far-right activists has deterred some from attending, including the mayors of a number of neighbouring localities who had previously planned to take part.

“There is a problem in Marsa and it is getting worse,” said Mehrabi Ghebar, an Eritrean migrant who spoke with MaltaToday, in the hope of finding a solution.  

Raid at the New Tiger Bar. Photo: James Bianchi
Raid at the New Tiger Bar. Photo: James Bianchi
“People complain about immigrants but nobody gives a solution. I have been in Malta for 12 years so I feel I have a responsibility to find one, even if you have not given me citizenship,” he insisted. 

Ghebar no longer lives in Marsa himself but said one of the reasons the situation has deteriorated, is because of a higher cost of living and rental prices which have skyrocketed in recent years. 

“It’s 6 or 7 o’clock, where do they go? You don’t have a house or a home. You go to Marsa! You drink and you sleep,” he said. 

Marsa residents who spoke to this newspaper but did not wish to be named, described their frustration at seeing people passed out in playgrounds, saying they felt uncomfortable letting their children play outside. 

One woman claimed she often saw needles in public spaces and a second claimed she had once been chased home by a migrant and had resorted to send her child to catechism classes in Qormi. 

“I don’t want to leave Marsa but we need to be heard so that we can return to a state of normality once again,” she said. 

Ghebar also said many migrants from Africa had reached a state of hopelessness, causing them to fall victim to drugs and crime. 

“If you work, like me, you want to sleep after work. Had I not had an appointment with you I would be asleep. Why should I go to Marsa?” he asked. 

“If you are hopeless you don’t care. They all drink, they find Maltese people who know how to find and sell drugs, and eventually they start to go to Paceville and sell there.”  

This feeling of hopelessness was to a large extent rooted in the fact that many migrants have been living in a state of limbo for over a decade, Ghebar says, often being denied full legal status, along with its accompanying rights.  

Mehrabi Gebar: 'If you work, like me, you want to sleep after work. Why should I go to Marsa? If you are hopeless you don't care'
Mehrabi Gebar: 'If you work, like me, you want to sleep after work. Why should I go to Marsa? If you are hopeless you don't care'
“You have to be mentally strong to cope. We have lost many good people to Marsa. Before they didn’t smoke, now they are in Marsa smoking hashish,” he claimed. 

Ghebar recounted how some years back he had requested asylum in Switzerland. At the same time, he said, another migrant whom he knew, who was also in Malta, had successfully left Malta, and the two arrived in Switzerland at the same time. 

“We requested asylum together and they saw from our fingerprints that we had arrived in Malta, so they asked the Maltese government about both of us.”

According to Ghebar, authorities in Malta asked for him to be sent back but did not take his friend back, on the basis of him having broken the law to escape. Ghebar believes that he was not allowed to stay in Switzerland because he had always paid his taxes and social security, unlike his friend. 

“He is lucky, he is now with his family. Because I did the right thing, I was brought back,” he said, adding that unlike in other EU countries, in Malta he did not have a right to bring his family or to travel to see them because he does not have “strong enough documents”. 

12 years in the making 

Central to the problem with Marsa is the open centre for asylum seekers, opened in 2005. At the time it was hoped that this shuttered trade school, itself having fallen below expectations, could serve as a halfway-house for migrants released from detention. But at the start, it was clear that asylum seekers detained for anything up to 18 months in Safi, would be hardened by the unwelcome reception Malta had given them.

Ghebar said that with the infamous New Tiger Bar right next door – a Maltese-owned establishment already notorious in Marsa, now rented out to expatriates from the area – the necessary action wasn’t taken to prevent it becoming a “criminal centre”. 

“There is only one wall separating them. You go out of the centre and you’re in the bar,” Ghebar said of the neighbouring watering hole. The bar’s owner also rents out rooms in the buildings surrounding the bar, which have developed into a complex that includes bars, barbers and a tailor.

“There is gambling, fighting with glass, all sorts of things,” he said. “The police come, they know about everything but they don’t close it. If a place of that size were to be operating anywhere else they would close it down.”

The fact that there haven’t been effective attempts at integration only makes people feel worse, he said. 

“Whether you’ve been here ten days or ten years it is the same for Maltese people. They don’t know. We have not integrated yet,” he continued, visibly exasperated. 


Management by crisis

Ahmed Bugri, the CEO of the Marsa Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants, echoed Ghebar, describing the problem as “a concentration of a particular group of people in one place”.

“There is a problem, both for migrants and for the people of Marsa,” he said. 

Asked whether he felt that either the closing of the open centre or an increased police presence would solve the problem, he was adamant that it would not. 

Bugri said that irrespective of the centre, Marsa was now a meeting place, adding that there were shops, barbers, African food, and other attractions which brought Africans to Marsa. 

Abdul, an Eritrean hairdresser in Msida. This photograph, taken in 2015. shows a side of the successful integration of certain migrants that people never see up close (Photo: UNHCR/Dragana Rankovic)
Abdul, an Eritrean hairdresser in Msida. This photograph, taken in 2015. shows a side of the successful integration of certain migrants that people never see up close (Photo: UNHCR/Dragana Rankovic)
As for an increased police presence, he said that given the number of people there, a presence made sense, but he warned that a heavy-handed approach would not solve anything. 

“The problem is not crime but social issues like alcohol and drug addiction. A person addicted to synthetic drugs supplied to them by a local is not a criminal,” he said, adding that “all the machine guns and dogs” only served to reinforce this idea.

Like Ghebar he stressed that “if a person is here for ten years then you need to give him stability” if you expect him to live his life in a constructive and law-abiding manner. 

“They can’t constantly feel like they are about to leave because they will never be able to settle down. Why shouldn’t Malta, after 15 years, not have a proper integration policy,” he asked.

While he understood that the people of Marsa were also the victims of the situation, Bugri said he feared that the government’s pledge to close the Marsa Open Centre had empowered locals, who would in turn continue to apply pressure on the government to follow through. 

He said however that the government needed to understand that people living in Malta for prolonged periods of time are going to want to socialise and that this needs to be factored in.

“Until a proper solution is found, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. They are not going anywhere.”

Yannick joined MaltaToday as a journalist in 2016. His main areas of interest are politics...