Busting the myths about immigration | Jon Hoisaeter

UNHCR representative Jon Hosaieter makes the case that a proper immigration strategy can only be achieved if we base our arguments on solid facts instead of myths and perceptions

UNCHR Malta representative Jon Hoisaeter
UNCHR Malta representative Jon Hoisaeter

'Immigration fever' appears to have made a dramatic comeback this summer, after an apparent lull in irregular migrant arrivals over the past few years. There has been a sudden increase in the number of landings in the past two weeks: and the individual numbers involved also appear to be higher, with well over 100 passengers disembarking with each boat intercepted by the AFM.

On closer scrutiny, however, these numbers turn out to be misleading. Malta has actually received fewer irregular migrants (though arguably under less dramatic conditions) this year than over the corresponding timeframe last year; but while this may even indicate a drop in annual arrivals, the fact remains that frustration at a seemingly insoluble problem is now running at an all-time high.

This in turn points towards what Jon Hoisaeter, Malta's representative of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, identifies as a core problem with Malta's entire approach to the immigration phenomenon. Very often, when we talk about immigration we will not necessarily talk about the facts about immigration; but rather, the many myths surrounding a phenomenon which remains largely misunderstood.

But first things first. Last Monday, the European Court of Human Rights issued emergency interim measures to stop the government of Malta from summarily deporting 40 asylum seekers from Somalia, without offering them the opportunity to apply for asylum. What is the UNHCR's reaction?

Hoisaeter replies by pointing towards the underlying reason for the existence of a law against this type of mass-deportation in the first place. "It is illegal to send people back to countries where their safety could be at risk. And the situation in Libya the situation is very far from safe. People there, especially migrants from other parts of Africa, are subject to abuse, sometimes of the most serious kind imaginable..."

Here he gives me a copy of the latest Amnesty International country report on Libya dated May 2013: which confirms that many of the country's detentions centres are not in the hands of the State at all. Instead, they are controlled directly by militias which operate outside any national or international jurisdiction.

Such militias, the report observes, "continued to commit serious human rights abuses with impunity, including arbitrary arrests, arbitrary detention, torture and unlawful killings..."

Moreover, "undocumented foreign nationals faced arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, exploitation and torture or other ill-treatment".

"These observations are borne out by our own interviews with escaped asylum seekers from Libya," Hoisaeter adds. "Some of them came here suffering from gunshot wounds, sustained during their escape from detention. Those were the lucky ones... others didn't make it..."

Under these circumstances, he adds, forced return should not even be considered as "it would be a direct violation of international law".

All the same, this leaves us none the wiser as to what course of action Malta can legitimately take, in view of a problem which - rightly or wrongly - is exasperating the entire country. It seems that other entities such as the European Union (or in this case, the UNHCR) are very quick to rap us on the knuckles, and to tell us that 'this, that or the other' just can't be done. Wouldn't it be more helpful for the same entities to occasionally also inform us what actually can be done under such circumstances?

Hoisaeter acknowledges the criticism. "Unfortunately there is no quick-fix solution, but this doesn't mean that there are no solutions that can be pursued. Malta needs to work in several directions at the same time. On one level it needs to further develop its asylum reception system - which is already an efficient procedure, although there is room for improvement..."

Above all, however, Hoisaeter argues that before even talking about solutions, we need to develop a clearer idea about what the actual problems are.

"So far there has been a lot of talk about how Europe can assist; but before any assistance can be given, Europe must be presented with a proper detailed analysis of the actual situation. Assistance has to be on the basis of sound analysis; yet so far not enough homework has been done on how to present the issue to Europe. Is it a problem of capacity? Are there problems processing applications for asylum? How many people can be integrated, and what can be done about those who can't..?"

These are the sort of questions Hoisaeter claims the European Commission will expect answers to, in any future discussion of Malta's immigration phenomenon at EU level.

Besides: Malta's pleas for international sympathy are unlikely to go very far, when one also considers that all European countries have immigration issues of their own to contend with (Sweden, for instance, has just taken in 40,000 refugees from Syria without making any fuss)... though to date, only one - Malta - has actually received any assistance in the form of relocation of refugees.

Hosieter argues that this side of the coin - the 'plus side', as he calls it - is all too often completely ignored. People tend to be selective when it comes to which statistics they cite, and which they choose to ignore; and one statistic that is rarely mentioned is the sheer number of asylum seekers to have landed in Malta, but who have since moved on to other countries.

"All in all there have been around 17,000 arrivals since the entire phenomenon began just over 10 years ago. I admit that constitutes a high figure, given the size of Malta. It is the same size, roughly, as the population of Mosta. But where are these people now? If they were all still here, shouldn't there be a town the size of Mosta populated only by immigrants? But this doesn't exist, because many of them have left... some through relocation programmes, but mostly on their own steam..." 

Malta, it seems, has taken what Hoisaeter describes as a "pragmatic approach", sometimes giving protection status even to failed asylum seekers. "We're not advocating this as a solution, but the end result is that these people get travel documents and move on."

Likewise, the assistance already received from other countries on this score is very often minimised. There have to date been at least 2,000 successful relocations: 1,300 to the US, and around 700 to Europe.

Hoisaeter admits this may not, at a glance, look like an overwhelming figure... but he argues that people would certainly describe the same number as 'huge' if it referred to people arriving by boat instead of leaving.

"You can't have it both ways. If the arrival of 2,000 migrants is described as a crisis, then surely the fact that 2,000 have since left for other countries cannot be considered insignificant. Yet this is how a lot of people seem to reason: they attach importance to the numbers of arrivals, and overlook the number of departures."

Having said this, the UNHCR representative concedes that while the general public may not be appreciative of these efforts, the same cannot really be said of actual government agencies and entities involved. Here Hoisaeter pauses to acknowledge that a lot of good work has been done, and singles out the AFM for high praise when it comes to rescuing lives at sea. "It is quite remarkable what the local armed forces have done and continue to do," he says, referring not only to the four boats intercepted in recent days, but to the hundreds of life-saving operations conducted over the past decade. "By any standard it is an extraordinary contribution to refugee protection worldwide."

Nonetheless, there is still what he describes as a "gap in the national discussion" about immigration.

"We can talk about ways existing procedures can be improved, but until we adopt a multi-faceted approach to the issue - one based on facts and realities, instead of perceptions and myths - we cannot hope to make any headway."

Among the questions that are rarely asked in the ongoing debate is one about the contribution (for better or worse) of irregular migration on the economy.

"What is the effect of a flexible workforce on specific industries such as the construction and hospitality sectors?" Hoisaeter asks. "We know, for instance, that there is a degree of exploitation of vulnerable workers. But we also know, or have reason to believe, that certain sectors are coming round to relying on this same workforce. It would be interesting to hear what these sectors have to say about the issue themselves. All this needs to be part of the overall picture, if we are going to have a truly meaningful debate on the subject."

Another question few people are asking concerns how much of the perceived problem may in fact be self-inflicted. Some ancillary issues - not least, the emergence of undisguised racism in the country - may in part be fuelled by a government policy that is likewise not based on facts but only on perceptions.

One such perception is the term 'illegals' to refer to people who have actually not committed any crime at all - as seeking asylum in other countries is in fact a right according to all people by the convention of human rights.

Hoisaeter questions how much of this perception can be attributed to government's policy of blanket detention in prison-like conditions. "If people only see asylum seekers behind bars like criminals, this will surely fuel the idea that they are 'illegal'..."

Hoisaeter admits that there may be acceptable reasons for limited detention, especially at the early stages of asylum application: for instance, screening for health reasons. But long-term detention of the kind favoured by successive administrations of government is not necessary; and may even exacerbate certain problems associated with immigration.

"To be fair the conditions of detentions have improved, but the fact that asylum seekers are kept in prison-like conditions only reinforces popular perceptions of them as criminals," he says, adding that the perception - as with all the other myths surrounding immigration - causes more harm than the reality.

More in Interview