Integration is not an option

As has been rightly pointed out elsewhere, the single greatest barrier to integration remains fear… and the unknown is the primary case for fear in any country.

Aditus, an NGO specialising in human rights, recently published a national immigration policy that would permit (among many other proposals) immigrant communities to participate in local council elections. Judging by the reactions, however, it is clear that a lot of work has to be done before we can get to that stage.

At face value, there is nothing particularly unusual about the policy platform suggested by Aditus. Indeed, it corresponds to the present government’s stated aims of favouring a policy of integration.

Last year, the Minister for Social Dialogue, Consumer Affairs and Civil Liberties, Helena Dalli, told a conference held by the International Organisation for Migration that her government was committed to developing an immigrant integration policy based on the EU’s Common Basic Principles (CBP) for immigrant integration, which were adopted by the Justice and Home Affairs Council in November 2004 and form the foundations of EU initiatives in the field of integration.

One of the principles cited by Dalli as government policy is that ‘The participation of immigrants in the democratic process and in the formulation of integration policies and measures, especially at the local level, supports their integration’ (CBP9). The initiative taken by Aditus merely takes this existing commitment one step further, by actuating this policy in practical terms.

Strangely, however, both Minister Dalli and President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca – who, as minister for social policy, had likewise endorsed integration as a policy direction – seem to have been taken by surprise by a practical demonstration of what their own preferred policy really entails.

Dalli’s response was that the political participation of migrants was “not a priority”, there being “other pressing issues” to contend with first. The President echoed this sentiment by arguing that granting electoral rights, even only at local council level, would be a case of ‘jumping the gun’. Significantly, neither dismissed the proposal out of hand… presumably knowing full well that Malta’s stated aim is precisely in this direction, though the government is clearly not in any hurry to get there.

Their response was therefore not a case of ‘no, never’, but only of ‘no, not yet’.

Herein lies the main problem. All the major parties involved (Government, Opposition, immigrants, rights advocacy groups, etc) appear to converge on the same policy platform – i.e., that a process should be in place allowing immigrant communities (which make up a total of 6.67% of the entire population) the right to participate in local politics. But at the same time, this is the one policy that an overwhelming majority is dead-set against.

Outside the political sphere, the Aditus report was greeted with an almost deafening chorus of condemnation, occasionally of the most crude variety imaginable. This alone may explain why successive governments have been so reluctant to pursue such an unpopular policy in practice. The Aditus report has in a sense tested the water on how such a policy would be received. Clearly, it is still almost at boiling point.

The resulting situation spells out trouble for the future. Having endorsed the EU’s Common Basic Principles, Malta has no real choice but to enact an integration policy. We now know, however, that any such attempt would raise the temperature of an already incandescent debate to unsustainable levels. It appears, then, that we are on a collision course with possibly serious social tension ahead.

Yet this is precisely why the government would do well to heed the advice in the same Aditus report, which also recommends a number of measures specifically designed to facilitate the transition and ease any such tensions.

According to these recommendations, voting rights would only be extended to migrants who had already undergone an acceptable residential period on the island, and who underwent educational programmes aimed at familiarising them with local culture, language and traditions… which is already more than can be said for the beneficiaries of the IIP scheme, who are granted full citizenship in exchange for money.

There are however two aspects which the discussion has so far failed to address. The first is that the issue of third country national voting rights does not begin and end with asylum seekers from Africa. Other non-EU nationals are likewise often denied the opportunity to apply for citizenship (and corresponding rights). Ideally, it should be made clearer that we are, in fact, talking about all categories of immigrants here. This would help dispel some of the misconceptions surrounding this issue.

The second problem is that it is not just immigrants who need to be re-educated about their own role within the Maltese community. The remaining 93% of ‘traditionally’ Maltese citizens must also rediscover what it means to be a democratic state founded on the principle of parliamentary representation.

As has been rightly pointed out elsewhere, the single greatest barrier to integration remains fear… and the unknown is the primary case for fear in any country.

It is therefore incumbent on the government to embark on initiatives that help remove this fear barrier from the immigration issue, precisely by educating the public on what the integration process really involves. Only this can begin to prepare an unwilling population to accept a situation that is already inevitable, according to the government’s own declared policies.

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