The great influx in context

Crucially, however, the census should bring about a realisation that Malta is no longer homogenous – if indeed it ever was - but includes different cultures and realities, which cannot be constantly overlooked as a ‘temporary phenomenon’

The latest census shows that the number of foreigners – i.e. people living in Malta who are not Maltese citizens – has shot up from 20,289 in 2011, to 115,449: bringing the Maltese population up from 417,432, to 519,562.

This probably represents the greatest ever influx of new people to Malta, since the arrival of the Knights of Saint John in 1530.

The census also shows that foreigners account for a majority of the population in Msida, St Paul’s Bay and Gzira; and nearly half the population in Sliema and St Julian’s.

Contrary to popular perceptions, this rapid demographic change has less to do with the influx of asylum-seekers, than with an influx of foreign workers – from both the EU and third countries - which started after Malta joined the EU in 2004; but which was dramatically accentuated after 2013.

This rapid change was in many cases also accompanied by over-development, thanks to a rising demand for accommodation, coupled with the simultaneous relaxation of planning policies. As such, it has had a marked impact on liveability in many Maltese towns, which are changing beyond recognition.

Places like Gzira, which have seen an influx of 3,000 foreigners since 2011, have become permanent construction sites.  And this enormous change has occurred in the absence of any serious discussions on the implications of such a sudden population-growth, in such a small and already densely populated island.    

Malta’s density has now reached the 1,649 person per square km mark (compared to an EU average of just 109), and has even surpassed the 15,000 mark in Sliema.

Obviously, one cannot ignore that foreigners have contributed to Malta’s economic growth; and that they remain essential to fill labour shortages.  Moreover, Malta is a nation state; and cannot be compared to just any other pristine island in the Mediterranean, as it needs the infrastructure to sustain its economy.

The influx of foreigners also erodes insularity, enriches the skill base and contributes to a cosmopolitan atmosphere which enriches our identity.

Still, the absence of long-term planning in this sector is aggravating the situation. First of all, the liveability in long established towns is being sacrificed.  Secondly, there is a difference between importing labour to fill skills shortages; and importing labour simply because it is cheaper.

The latter only gives rise to the exploitation of vulnerable workers. In this sense, it is important that Malta has not just fully functioning planning rules, but also strong enforcement of labour laws: outlawing practices like zero-hour contracts, and forced self-employment.

In short, foreigners are more than welcome; but they should not be imported to boost the demand for property, or to enrich companies which defy labour laws.

But such an influx also requires proper planning, studies and mitigation measures.  Ironically, the same Labour Party which, before 2013, had promised to conduct social impact assessments before enacting new policies, has largely ignored the social and environmental consequences of this influx.    

And while the Labour government has often flirted with intransigent nationalism, with regard to the less-numerous asylum seekers, the increase in foreign workers is treated more like a weather phenomenon: something over which we have no control, and which is inevitable.

But we also have to recognise that foreigners are here to stay, and the population is also bound to increase. In this sense, what we need is a plan to contain the influx in a more manageable way: something which would become much easier, just by strengthening existing labour laws and planning regulations.

And since foreigners need accommodation, it is the responsibility of planners to ensure that their presence does not penalise local communities. That should include more open public spaces, to make up for the increased population density.

We also need to strengthen the sense of belonging of foreigners who live in Malta.  One major problem with foreigners who are here for very temporary periods, is that they are less likely to feel attached to local communities.

It is also vital that official communications on things like waste collection, for instance, are delivered in languages understood by these residents.

Moreover, we should also seriously consider granting third country nationals the right to vote in local elections: as EU citizens already do. This may help in instilling a greater sense of belonging; and it would also help to offer the prospect of citizenship, for foreigners who have been here for a significant number of years: especially if this is accompanied by education courses in Maltese culture and language.

And lastly, law and order problems have to be addressed: not by profiling foreigners, but by having more police on the beat, to ensure the safety of both locals and foreigners alike.    

Crucially, however, the census should bring about a realisation that Malta is no longer homogenous – if indeed it ever was - but includes different cultures and realities, which cannot be constantly overlooked as a ‘temporary phenomenon’.

This realisation requires a complete change in the frame of mind of civil servants, public entities and even local businesses: who often persist in making a distinction between Maltese and foreigners, with the latter often being seen as sources of extra revenue to be ‘milked’.