The other side of the immigration coin | Gervais Chisihayo

Immigration does not only refer to asylum seekers entering the country without documents. Even fully legal immigrants like Gervais Chisihayo – a geophysicist and university lecturer who has been resident here for 20 years – can be affected by rising xenophobia

One thing that has been lacking in the ongoing debate on immigration so far is an outsider's perspective. Public discussion has for the most part been limited to the inherently lopsided views of, on the one hand, activists and NGOs concerned with human rights and, on the other, a much larger but less easily defined swath of people who are clearly uneasy with the phenomenon of mass-immigration as a whole.

Extreme opinions and emotive hysteria exist on both side of the fence. But what has increasingly characterised this same debate is a constant stream of often astonishing sweeping statements along the lines that all immigrants are criminals; all immigrants are uneducated; that they take local jobs (and occasionally women) to the detriment of the local population... undercutting local salaries, 'threatening' the long term survival of the indigenous culture, and so on.

On the other side there are those who claim - not without plausible reason, but without any clear evidence - that migrants do not even stay here for very long; and the few who do have a positive impact on the economy.

In all this uncertainty many people have lost perspective on what immigration really is: forgetting, among other things, that there are perfectly legal and regular immigrants who have been naturalised Maltese citizens for years, of not decades - yet who now suddenly find themselves exposed to naked hostility or suspicion, merely because of the colour of their skin.

Gervais Chisihayo is one such example A qualified geophysicist specialising in oil exploration, he came to Malta from his native Burundi in the 1980s and eventually settled here after obtaining his PhD in the Netherlands in 1992.

Like many other visibly different ethnicities present on the island, he acknowledges that people's attitudes towards him seem to have changed somewhat since the phenomenon of large-scale immigration from Africa began around 15 years ago.

"First of all, I must say that living in Malta was a choice for me, and not an imposition of some unfortunate circumstances," he says when asked if the recent outburst of apparent racism had affected him in any way. "I have been resident here for more than 20 years now: time enough to develop formed an informed opinion how Malta views and treats perceived 'outsiders'... and in particular an 'in-outsider par excellence' like me. But I can only reliably speak about my own experience. This has evolved with time along with events that shape the host society... yes, including the ongoing immigration crisis."

Gervais's circumstances are entirely different from the waves of mostly Somali or Eritrean asylum seekers; and even from other perceived economic immigrants who may not be fleeing persecution at all.

"Because of my origins and my cultural parcours, I can define myself as a Burundi-born 'African Maltese' and 'African European', strongly supportive of the EU integration process. Whether I am accepted as such is however not up to me to determine..."

But with a recent upsurge in openly racist sentiment expressed on the island, it is becoming clear that 'acceptance' of even legitimate foreign residents may be in jeopardy.

"Owing to my skin colour, with the wave of immigrant arrivals, to some people I have become just any other immigrant, a role that I did not ask for but in which I find no shame because I understand better the causes and the challenges and opportunities that it entails..."

He admits that problems arose even before the first boatloads of irregular migrants started arriving I earnest in the very late 1990s.

"My conspicuously different appearance has always made me stand out in almost every social and/or professional gathering," he recalls. "Attitudes could range from friendly welcoming, compassionate curiosity to unacceptable and unjustified aggressive hostility..."

He adds that he has had experience of direct discrimination in certain circumstances. "Sometimes I felt like banging my head against the wall and seeing stars as the whole system of rule of law let me down... especially when most of my Maltese compatriots would stand in my defence only to be overruled by an almighty powerful minority. I learnt how to win by losing, to surf the waves during challenging times and used my intuition and emotional intelligence to sense and appreciate people as individuals and to steer clear of stereotyping my Maltese compatriots."

Nonetheless he distinguishes between different types of discrimination - conceding that a certain natural tendency to favour indigenous locals in certain areas is understandable (and common to all countries everywhere).

"The preferential treatment and comparative advantage that comes with nationality is something that I accept with grace and humility, whenever applied in a transparent manner. But it becomes less acceptable and bitter when it is only applied through unwritten discriminatory rules that sometimes defy common social sense."

Interestingly enough such discrimination is by no means limited to skin colour: EU nationals of all hues recently protested at Malta's 'institutionalised discrimination' against foreigners in general in the form of higher utility bills, for instance, or different wage structures.

Gervais found similar obstacles when trying to settle into life in Malta. "Although I was regularly established with the same family challenges as other taxpayers (my children and spouse were all Maltese nationals) the fact that I was not a Maltese citizen was a serious handicap whenever it came to competing for employment appointments, promotion and/or business opportunities. However, I had made it my own life challenge, and I waited until I had earned a professional position on my own merits [as a teacher at the university] to apply and became a Maltese citizen. In this respect, I have always sought to be and remain loyal and faithful to the oath freely undertaken to become a Maltese citizen."

But while Gervais Chisihayo is careful to avoid lumping all Maltese in the same xenophobic basket, he does not exactly mince his words when it comes to how the authorities and various institutions involved - including the media - have in some respects ducked their responsibilities.

"The 'Mediterranean boat people' phenomenon is a complex problem that calls for immediate, medium- and long-term proactive solutions to global challenges. Yet for some reason, the issue has been sensationalised and to some extent exploited by opportunistic politicians, who capitalise on the common citizen's fear of the unknown and stir up all types of negative and hostile sentiments that never look beyond skin colour in a bid to score points..."

As for the public debate on immigration, he observes that in Malta this tends to be shallow and to focus essentially on the emotional dimension of the fundamental issues that underpin this complex issue.

"To date, the press is failing to fulfil its mission to enlighten the local, regional and international opinion with researched information and facts. Investigations can and should be carried out in the countries of origin, transit and destination of migrants..."

Such investigative journalism may bring to light invaluable information that may even assist in addressing the problems: for instance, by highlighting the operations of criminal organisations involved in people trafficking.

But this is not happening. Instead, the media tend to take the easier and less helpful route of simply pandering to popular sentiment.

"Media are independent and have their own styles, but the press coverage tends to have different overtones depending on the melanin dose of the subject..."

Still, I put it him that there has been some improvement since the early days, when asylum seekers were actively compared to jellyfish on the PBS news (among other examples of truly shocking racist reporting in Malta).

He nods in agreement. "While some progress was registered with respect to the way these events were reported in the not-too distant past, the press coverage is still asymmetrical as it does not give a balanced view through contributions of people who may be at the receiving end of intolerance and discrimination..."

This is however likely to change, as the newsrooms on major media houses no longer enjoy a monopoly on news reporting.

"Thanks to the democratization of publication with the advent of the new technologies, stories of discrimination and other racist and xenophobic assaults can no longer be easily hidden from the public. Nowadays they tend to be fairly reported by the media in general and even better in certain media..."

He is less optimistic about the way politicians and political parties have responded to the recent challenges, however.

"The extreme hostile and aggressive attitudes arise from the political vacuum and opportunism, whereby the political leadership's failures to address societal problems are blamed on immigrants." 

This blame game, he adds, invariably finds its way into public discourse on the topic.

"While this issue sporadically flares up in the media, to date the political parties in Malta have failed to address the issue of immigration and integration of migrants. Their electoral manifestos are there to bear me witness..."

The publication of online comments may be the responsibility of the editorial boards of individual media houses, but the actual opinions that get published are often simply extensions of the way the country's policy-formers have approached the same issue.

Invariably, certain common features can be identified: there is a tendency to talk in apocalyptic terms of the possible consequences of a 'full-scale invasion' (to use the typically alarmist parlance commonly associated with far-right thinking on the subject). There have even been open suggestions of 'leaving immigrants to drown'.

Nonetheless Gervais cautions against a blanket policy of censorship to counter this phenomenon.

"However erroneous they may be, anti-immigrants lobbyists have the right to voice their concerns within the confines of the rule of law. However I personally think that many of their assertions - for instance, that large populations of naturalised foreigners will force a change on Maltese culture, for instance by forcing the country to adopt Sharia Law - are clearly far-fetched and verge on deliberate alarmism and political fiction..."

On another level, he also argues that the same vociferous lobby picks and chooses its battles with caution.

"Anti-immigrant lobbyists attack the weakest component of the immigration problem - the immigrants - but they would not confront the more powerful forces that drive immigration, that is, human traffickers and other criminal elements, as well as the transnational political forces that fuel and benefit from illegal immigration..."

This all adds to the image of what he describes as a political fiction: one whereby the immigrant is to blame for the country;s problems, while no effort is made to address the immigration issue at source.

Precisely the same fiction lies at the heart of Malta's 'official' response to this issue, at least towards the beginning of the phenomenon: a response which involved actively stoking the above far-fetched fears for political gain.

Gervais confesses to having been dismayed by the political approach to this issue so far.

"It was certainly predictable and unavoidable that the spectacular stand-off we saw recently would bring to the surface any underlying latent negative sentiments of the common citizen, who has been left without any sound guiding policies on this matter."

The consequences of this policy vacuum are serious, he adds; and the effects are not felt only by irregular asylum seekers.

"The scourge of racist and xenophobic intolerance is such that even Maltese citizens of foreign extraction are not protected and are the subject of unwritten institutionalised discriminatory rules when it comes to access to education and training, employment and justice, just to name a few..."

There is also an institutional lacuna in this regard: Gervais points towards the absence of any local authority equipped to deal with such discrimination.

"The National Commission for the Promotion of Equality is perceived as a toothless government policy resonance box, which is unable to fulfil its intended role to combat discrimination and intolerance. So NGOs were left alone to confront the ugly monster of racism and xenophobia that has accompanied the wave of immigration..."

Though regrettable, this situation is by no means unique to Malta.

"Having said all this, the Maltese certainly do not have a monopoly on acts of racism and xenophobic attitudes. These are found, to different degrees, even in Malta's EU partner countries, which have more advanced integration policies and procedures towards immigration and integration."

Naturally this brings us to the altogether more difficult problem of treating the malady rather than merely diagnosing it. And while there is clearly no such thing as a magic wand solution, this does not mean there are no courses of action available at all.

"Immigration in Malta and elsewhere in the world is a double-sided coin. In times of crisis, immigration entails human resources displacement, and 'one country's brain drain is another's brain gain'. Without going into any details or legal merits, the USA, Canada and Australia are just a few examples of countries where the population and social fabric are made of immigrants; and they are amongst the world leading nations when it comes to global development centred on technological innovation."

Yet here in Malta, there has been no real effort to acknowledge the changing demographics of the country.

"I admit this might sound provocative, but while discrimination and xenophobia is prohibited by Maltese law and in public service policy, isn't it strange that with the sizeable proportion of Maltese citizens of foreign descent (including black Africans and their offspring) there is not even a symbolic member from the minority groups within the law enforcement, diplomatic service, professional and even public administrative agencies? Even NGOS and the media, which are rightly so vocal in the war on racism and xenophobia, rarely include any such people in their own structures."

Rather than view immigration only as a problem, Gervais argues that it should be seen also as an opportunity which can even be turned into a win-win situation, if only a concerted effort were made to adopt a more positive and less alarming political approach to the problem.

"As an island nation with all that this entails in terms of demographics... and given its geo-strategic position at the cross-roads of the Mediterranean, Malta has always benefited from an injection of foreign dimension in many respects. There are many other gains that the Maltese population and Malta could draw from a controlled immigration, for its survival as a nation. But this entails long-term vision and strategic choices that go far beyond the short lifespan of individual politician's careers."

But by threatening mass-deportation in defiance of the human rights convention, Malta has arguably moved in the opposite direction.

"Ad hoc spectacular diplomacy is counter-productive and self-damaging," Gervais points out. "Malta stands to gain more respect by having an assertive coherent integrated immigration and integration policy that is in line with national interests and respectful of international law."

More in Interview