Moving forward, together

Download here the UNHCR’s magazine ‘Moving Forward, Together’ here: a celebration of people’s resilience after fleeing persecution and their efforts to rebuild a new life in Malta

This magazine is not just about refugees living and working in Malta. It is also about Malta as a crossroad of cultures and peoples for millennia. A cursory look at the past decade reveals that a lot has changed.

Malta’s recent refugee history has been characterized by irregular boat arrivals from Libya, where more than 20,000 arrived since 2004. Boat arrivals dropped to practically nil since 2014, following the Italian and European operations that take rescued migrants to Italy for disembarkation. This does not mean that asylum applications have stopped. It only means that the mode of arrival has now shifted towards regular arrivals.

Indeed, the Office of the Refugee Commissioner processes between 1,600 - 2000 asylum applications a year, granting the majority with international protection. Most of the asylum applications today are from Libya, Syria, Somalia and Eritrea – all countries where there are conflicts and war forcing civilians to flee.

UNHCR Malta Magazine by maltatoday on Scribd

Also, just because boat arrivals have dropped, it does not mean that Malta is not contributing in saving the many lives that cross the dangerous sea between Libya and Italy. In fact Malta continues to be involved in rescue operations in the Mediterranean Sea. Malta should be proud of the Armed Forces of Malta for saving lives that would otherwise be lost.

Malta has also received support. Some would say that Malta should have received more, but it is an undeniable fact that Malta received solidarity from the European Union and the United States both in terms of funding as well as resettling refugees from Malta. In total, close to 4,000 people fleeing persecution and war have now been resettled and relocated to the United States and other EU member states.

Malta was the first and only EU Member State to receive such an assistance. Today resettlement from Malta to the US has stopped. But we are happy to see Malta playing its part by accepting around 200 asylum seekers and refugees from Italy, Greece and Turkey. One should also note that Malta is the only EU Member State to have fulfilled its quota in the relocation scheme. This is something that Malta further milestone is the significant reduction in the use of detention for asylum seekers. For too long Malta kept in place a system that was not in line with international and European human rights standards. The new system has not yet been tested with boat arrivals and UNHCR continues to engage with the local authorities to monitor this transition and recommend improvements. But this was an important step for Malta, and one which moves away from a situation of ‘emergency’ to one of sustainable management of the asylum system.

We are also pleased to note that the word integration’ is no longer taboo. We are noticing that at a ministerial and government level, more officials are ready to recognize and work for a more inclusive society. More organizations, some of them in the private sector, are engaging with us to better understand the situation of refugees, contribute and bridge the gaps that still exist with the refugee community.

The new integration framework for migrants is a landmark moment for this country as it recognizes the need to have a holistic approach to the issue of social inclusion.

Yet, there are challenges to be addressed.

Despite the many success stories that we highlight, there are many refugees who are struggling because they lack access to sustainable inclusion prospects, such as difficulties to access stable and predictable work, situations of homelessness driven by increasing rent prices, legal and policy impediments for family reunification.

It is sadly a fact that racism and xenophobia are real and pose a threat to social inclusion and could, if not addressed, be a cause of social exclusion and communal strife. Europe, as well as the Western world, are facing a mounting challenge to their core values of solidarity, fueled by populist politics and toxic public narratives that create a climate of fear.

It is here that leadership is required to engage with those communities who for one reason or another are facing challenges.

It is here that we would like to put forward three points:

Firstly, social inclusion. Investing in this area means investing in the social fibre of Maltese society. More support should be allocated to localities that may be facing challenges in this respect. The reasons could be varied and they need to be understood and addressed accordingly. This approach needs to be a holistic one.

There is no point in having an integration policy that is not followed up by the different ministries. Each relevant ministry should identify a focal point to work on integration and coordinate with other ministries. The ministries of home affairs, equality, education, health, social policy and the Office of the Prime Minister are those that need to be among the most active for this new integration policy to have an impact.

Secondly, Malta has made significant strides forward – from establishing the Refugee Act in 2000 to making changes to its reception policy, and having recently launched an integration framework, in December 2017. However, there are gaps that need to be addressed, such as better material reception conditions, a reform of the second instance asylum body, and broadening the family reunification process to include individuals granted subsidiary protection.

Thirdly, it is not just the Government or the local authorities that have certain responsibility towards social inclusion. Public perception and rhetoric matter too. Politicians from all hues should speak responsibly and seek to reinforce what holds us together rather than that which divides us. The media should use its powerful voice and position, as well as the terminology used, the reasons provided in the rise of refugee influx, and the solutions suggested, in a way that conveys accurate information, so that citizens can make sense of the world and their place within it. Sensational rhetoric makes headlines but it does very little to understand people who had to forcibly leave their homes.

Finally, each and every single one of us can do our part in making our communities a better place to live. So next time you meet a refugee at work, or at the shops, take that extra step to say hello and get to know the person. We have done a lot together. We can still do more.

More in Blogs

Get access to the real stories first with the digital edition