Building the foundation of a resilient community

It is in the everyday actions of the public, and the work of dedicated members of government, civil society and other stakeholders that one builds the foundations of strong, resilient communities

At the time of writing*, over 3,000 people were rescued either by the Armed Forces of Malta or Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs and brought to Malta in 2019, setting the highest number of sea arrivals to Malta in one year
At the time of writing*, over 3,000 people were rescued either by the Armed Forces of Malta or Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs and brought to Malta in 2019, setting the highest number of sea arrivals to Malta in one year

A lot has changed since we published the first issue of the UNHCR Malta magazine Moving Forward, at the beginning of 2018. We have gone from a three-year period when there were no disembarkations to a record year in terms of the number of persons rescued at sea and brought to Malta.

At the time of writing*, over 3,000 people were rescued either by the Armed Forces of Malta or Search and Rescue (SAR) NGOs and brought to Malta in 2019, setting the highest number of sea arrivals to Malta in one year.

In 2018 and 2019, we continued to witness a number of disputes between different Member States or between Member States and SAR NGOs on assigning a port of disembarkation for rescued people.

Without entering into the merit of the disputes (this is not the place for such a discussion) it nonetheless left refugees, asylums eekers and people seeking a better life stranded on board for days or weeks until an agreement was reached on an ad-hoc transfer mechanism.

Malta has often taken a leadership role, not only in shouldering its obligation in rescuing in the Central Mediterranean persons who found themselves in distress within the zones that fall under Malta’s responsibility, but also in forging, at times, ad hoc arrangements among like-minded European States for the disembarkation and subsequent transfers of asylum seekers.

This is far from an ideal situation. The lack of a predictable mechanism on rescue and swift disembarkation, firstly exposes persons escaping from wars and conflicts or seeking a better life, to grave consequences in the high seas. The number of boat arrivals in Europe from Libya has drastically reduced and continues to drop year after year, nevertheless, people continue to die because of a lack of legal means to reach safety.

Furthermore, the current stalemate imposes a heavy burden on Central Mediterranean frontline States such as Malta, which, without shared-responsibility and solidarity from other EU States will be saddled with demands that may prove to be too high to deal with alone. We remain hopeful that current discussions in finding workable arrangements will lead to an agreement.

The situation has proved challenging for the country’s reception system. Malta has made important strides forward into moving from a system of mandatory detention (of up to 18 months in case of failed asylum applications) to one of having initial reception centres where people are kept for a short duration in a closed centre until they are medically cleared.

Devised during a calm period of few arrivals, the initial reception system is currently being tested, and failing in a number of ways. We are unfortunately witnessing deterioration of many aspects of the reception system. Lack of proper contingency planning, coupled with the dismantling of existing reception infrastructures over the years, has resulted in both open and closed centres being overwhelmed. The lack of available accommodation in open centres has led to sizeable numbers of asylum-seekers being kept in a de facto detention situation at any given time for prolonged periods. Though we are cognisant of the prevailing circumstances, UNHCR’s position, in line with the letter and spirit of the Refugee Convention and international law, is that asylum-seekers should, as a general rule, not be detained. Children, and unaccompanied minors in particular, should never be detained.

Immediate actions are required to improve reception conditions in order to mitigate and avoid escalations of recurrent flashpoints, such as the unrest we have seen recently in open and closed centres. Long-term planning for the reception and integration of asylum seekers and refugees are also required as a matter of priority.

Another pressing concern is the rise of hate speech towards refugees and migrants. The pressures that ‘migration’ in general is perceived as imposing on Malta is turning some small, but virulent and vocal, segments of society to mount vitriolic attacks on those they view as the ‘other’. We have seen racist comments on social media on the rise. UNHCR condemns this hateful speech and scapegoating in the strongest terms.

We are encouraged by the stance of political leaders in Malta, pushing back against such divisive rhetoric. However it is sadly not only rhetoric, but also the brutal murder of Lassana Cisse Souleyman in April 2019 that is cause for serious concern. Lassana’s murder should be viewed as a cautionary tale against a hostile environment where refugees and migrants are maligned and dehumanised.

The title of our magazine ‘Building Communities’ aims to acknowledge the fact that people fleeing war and protection both contribute to the local community, and enrich it.

Today, many of the refugees living in the local community are working, opening businesses and sending their children to local schools. Friendships between Maltese people and refugees and asylum-seekers are forged while others may work together. Refugees are nurses, engineers, shop owners and teachers, among other professions.

They are also university students and aspiring graduates who will shape the future of our country.

This spirit of participation, of shared responsibility, is enshrined in the UN Global Compact on Refugees adopted by the United National General Assembly last year. The Compact marks a new era of international cooperation and provides a blueprint for better responses; it is a framework for more predictable and equitable responsibility-sharing, recognising that a sustainable solution to refugee situations cannot be achieved without international cooperation.

All of us have a part to play in achieving these goals, both at the state-level, but also within our communities. It is in the everyday actions of the public, and the work of dedicated members of government, civil society and other stakeholders that one builds the foundations of strong, resilient communities.

*This article featured in the UNHCR Malta Magazine ‘Building Communities’, published on the 5th January 2020

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