Nipping it in the bud

Scicluna’s decision to invite Bugre to the band club and confront the matter was also a message to Malta’s political leaders

Ahmed Bugre (left) and Archbishop Charles Scicluna on Monday evening in Marsa
Ahmed Bugre (left) and Archbishop Charles Scicluna on Monday evening in Marsa

Archbishop Charles Scicluna is unlikely to earn many plaudits for going down to Marsa and confronting head-on an ugly predicament of the migration phenomenon in the locality. But against a backdrop where both parties seem to be adopting more hard-line stances on immigration, it was timely and important that someone reminded us that there are more important things than pandering to the majority.

The head of Malta’s Catholic Church showed leadership on Monday evening when, along with Ahmed Bugre, held a meeting with the Holy Trinity band club in Marsa: which, as MaltaToday reported on Sunday, had been illegally stopping black people from entering the premises, under the guise of a members-only policy.

Bugre was a victim of this racist policy, which the club tried to defend by pointing towards migrants creating mayhem at the bar. While nobody can condone bad behaviour, a blanket policy to bar black people from entering a place remains illegal and downright racist. It is uncomfortably reminiscent of the rise of Nazism: which did not begin with concentration camps and genocide; but with signs saying ‘No Jews or Dogs’ outside private establishments. It is the confluence of racist expressions such as these – a street-level manifestation of broader prejudice or unrest – that permits dangerous ideologies to take root and thrive.

Unfortunately, however, the existence of this ill-feeling towards migrants cannot be denied or ignored. The Marsa community has had to face its fair share of problems created by a large immigrant population that is riven by poverty. There can be no doubt that, while some reactions have been extreme, a social problem does exist; and that it is partly the product of our own past and present policies.

One example was the decision to concentrate residences and reception centres in the same areas – mostly Marsa and Hal Far – thus ghettoising immigrants, and forcing residents ever more to the periphery of their own town or village. This has (very predictably, it must be said) created social problems that are particularly complex in Marsa.

There are undeniably migrants who engage in bad and anti-social behaviour, at times spurred by too much alcohol. There are migrants who sleep outside because they have nowhere else to stay. There are migrants who feel helpless and lost in a country that may not always be welcoming.

The last thing Marsa needed to add to all this was a band club adopting a policy of segregation that could only have created more problems. This is why the archbishop’s actions were timely: Scicluna was right in saying that the dialogue that started on Monday should not end there, and to call for better understanding between the resident community in Marsa and migrants.

He also called for mutual respect and discipline to be maintained. These are words that everyone can agree with; but nonetheless require concrete direct action by social actors to ensure integration happens in the best interest of everyone.

From this perspective, Scicluna’s decision to invite Bugre to the band club and confront the matter was also a message to Malta’s political leaders. It is significant that neither party responded to the issue at all, and that both have, in different ways, appealed to the very sentiments underpinning policies such as these.

It is not likely a coincidence that a band-club decided to ban black people so soon after Adrian Delia vowed to ‘protect the national interest’ against a ‘foreign invasion’ in his Independence Day speech. Likewise, Joseph Muscat’s announcement to increase police presence in Marsa is, in itself, a necessary measure to be taken; but it cannot escape notice that is addresses the same populist concerns.

Regrettably, these attitudes have pre-emptively tinged the imminent European Elections campaigns: individual candidates are resorting to increasingly eyebrow-raising tactics, to align with a perceived ant-immigration sentiment.

It is altogether too easy to simply buy into a groundswell populist feeling, without proposing any workable solution to address those complaints. Being ‘scandalised’ by the sight of shops opened and run by migrants, or pandering to people’s fears by posting photos of migrants sleeping on benches in public gardens, doesn’t make those areas any ‘safer’ for either the local residents, or – even less – the resident foreign communities that now exist there.

Faced with the same complaints, the archbishop tried another tack. He went to Marsa himself, and spoke directly to those who felt the need to adopt a discriminatory policy at their door. Talking to people, understanding their concerns but also clearly pointing out when they do wrong, is clearly the right direction, though it is but a start.

Certainly it stands in stark contrast to the usual political approach to immigration: which is to talk down at (not directly to) local communities, and to pretend that the new demographic that has arisen in our midst is not important, because it doesn’t have a vote. Sadly, it is this inability to bridge the chasm between ‘local’ and ‘foreign’ residents that gives rise to much of the problem.

Integration cannot happen on its own; it has to be helped. One starts – as Scicluna did – by acknowledging that the problem exists and cannot be solved by speeches and slogans.