Too easy to say: ‘Malta is full up’

Malta’s racism problem is spoken about less than its immigration problem

Ever since the video of a street-brawl in Hamrun went viral a few weeks ago, the Home Affairs Ministry has been carrying out a crack-down on squatters inside slum tenements – targeting homeless migrants, whose continued asylum or stay in Malta requires them to seek gainful employment and independent housing. Easier said than done. 

In the meantime, using the forces of law and order, the Labour government flexes its muscles with these down-and-out migrants, in a bid to put up a show of force after the Hamrun brawl video prompted calls for deportation. 

The Maltese tend to be particularly vocal about foreigners’ crimes: which is why incidents like the Hamrun main street brawl – as well as recent videos of Paceville brawls between Eastern European security, and Syrian clubbers – conjure up images of a “jungle”; or crimes committed by Africans are met with a clamour for deportation orders (such as that from Opposition spokesman Joe Giglio).

Yet this does little to address the reality of criminality amongst down-and-out, homeless migrants. 

Some of these concerns are related to direct living impacts: for example, the experience of people who live in proximity to migrant communities in Hamrun, Marsa, Hal Safi or Birzebbuga will – as neighbours - be different from the experience of others: whose encounter with African migrants is as consumers or recipients of public services, such as garbage collection.

That experience can be aggravated in areas where migrants are unemployed, exploited by the construction and other industries, live in crowded apartments, are driven to criminality by a precarious existence, or have mental health problems. 

But Malta’s racism problem is spoken about less than its immigration problem. 

African migrants rank the lowest in our perception of foreigners: we say little to nothing about legal workers from the East of Europe or Asia, because we accept them as valid candidates for jobs the Maltese no longer seem available to do – such as in nursing or caring, or in catering and hospitality, among many others. Middle Eastern workers, hailed for their construction skills, also seem to be in good stead, even though the far-right still reacts hysterically, when it sees a public expression of Muslim worship. 

But it is African migrants who have it worse, and that’s because they start out from a position of illegality. Not all of them qualify for asylum, which makes a sizeable portion of migrants technically ‘unwanted’; and legally speaking, slated for removal from the country (even though this does not usually happen). 

But then – having arrived in Malta already delegitimised - this pool of usually unskilled or semi-skilled workers cannot transition seamlessly into a state of legality. They are: (i) prone to being unemployed, or to do temporary and ad hoc jobs for low pay; (ii) they could be homeless or living in overcrowded, cheap housing, in places close to Valletta and Floriana (where police and immigration controls are located) and Hamrun and Marsa (where the migrant reception is located, and is the major pick-up point for ad hoc work); and (iii) caught up in a cycle of poverty and its associated social and health problems. 

There is a limit to how much we can afford turning such a complex phenomenon into a cheap political football, as MaltaToday has commented time and again in this leader. 

When politicians say ‘Malta is full up’, they reduce a complex issue into an easy one-liner which offers no solutions: despite the government’s own policy of opening the labour market to migrants, in order to maintain its economic growth. 

As always, weaponising migration risks legitimising bigotry and racist sentiments. MPs who use Hamrun as a geographic space in which Malta’s migration problems are grouped in, ignore the reality of its cheaper rental market, the success of ethnic businesses there, and its proximity to the International Protection Agency.

Even here, the PN has to make its own ideas and intentions clearer: by showing moral leadership, and striking the right balance by addressing real everyday concerns faced by residents in localities impacted by the influx. 

And while it remains important to address the concerns of those who resent African and Middle Eastern migration, and the social problems it brings, this does not mean normalising racism. But it is certainly a challenge for both State and parties. 

A government which does not address security concerns inside towns, with both police and social workers, is simply allowing citizens to shoulder the burden that comes from irregular migration; and a political party which does not provide a response on immigration that is positive and unique, only gives in to the scaremongering of the far-right. 

Surely, however, our answer to these challenges cannot be limited to a wholesale shift towards racism and bigotry.

Ultimately, the argument is not whether the country is ‘full up’; but whether it is in a position to govern and manage this reality through integration, labour market regulations, and effective policing in local communities; among other aspects.