Failure to integrate is not an option | Silvan Agius

SILVAN AGIUS, newly appointed director of the Human Rights and Integration Commission, argues that the opposite of integration is ghettoisation

Silvan Agius, director of the newly set up Human Rights and Integration Directorate • Photo: Ray Attard
Silvan Agius, director of the newly set up Human Rights and Integration Directorate • Photo: Ray Attard

Navigating the structures of Malta’s various government departments can be a bit of a labyrinthine experience. No matter the issue, there will always be a number of departments involved: the planning authority, transport authority, health and safety commission, VAT department, etc. etc.

Imagine, then, the headaches in store for those responsible for co-ordinating different government departments for a common purpose. I was about to start this interview by congratulating Silvan Agius on his recent appointment as director of the newly set up Human Rights and Integration Directorate, within the Ministry of Social Policy and Consumer Affairs. 

But then he told me what his job will actually entail… and it sounds to me more like a case for condolences.

In a nutshell, this directorate aims to streamline the functions of all government departments involved in both human rights, and integration policy: both of which involve an entire panoply of issues which are currently handled by literally dozens of different entities and institutions. 

But let’s start with human rights. Before coming to the Ministry of Social Policy in Valletta, I looked up a few cases in which Malta had been found guilty by the European Court. At a glance, the overwhelming majority involved issues such as arrest and detention (eg, lack of access to legal aid), and land expropriation disputes. 

How would the new Human Rights directorate deal with those two issues… when the former is the province of the Police (supposedly autonomous of government, though answerable to the Home Affairs Ministry) and the latter is handled by the Lands Department? 

Silvan Agius begins by pointing out that it is still too early to know for sure, as the directorate itself has yet to be formally ratified. But he also points out that its remit will not be to deal with individual cases dealt with by the law courts.

“When this directorate was conceived, it was not necessarily thought out to solve all kinds of human rights issues. That is not to say that when issues like this emerge, we will not be involved. But we still have to go through the entire process: a White Paper was published last year, there will be public consultation; a new Equality Act will be adopted, and a new Human Rights Commission will be set up to replace the outgoing National Commission for the promotion of Equality. There will, in brief, be a new human rights institution, along similar lines to the office of the Ombudsman. Not Constitutionally autonomous, but falling under Parliament…”

This directorate, then, is filling a gap brought about by the dismantling of previous institutions in preparation for the new commission.

“But in any case, the gap already existed,” Agius continues. “There was always a need for this directorate to be set up, precisely because of the way the government has included equality, non-discrimination and migrant integration within this ministry’s remit. None of those really fell into the remit of any dedicated directorates before. If you look at consumer affairs, by way of contrast, there is an institution specifically for that. Health and safety regulations are another example. But if you look at equality, and especially integration, there was no unit specifically for that...”

Coming back to police detention and property rights, Agius admits these are not top priority for the directorate.

“I don’t think these will be the first areas we will be dealing with. But it will be our role to look into these issues, and to draw up possible courses of action. We can’t tell the police what to do; but we can work with the police, and ensure that they have what is needed. Our role is to liaise with different government departments, and assist with the development of policy and procedures that may be lacking or inadequate…”

Yet these two issues constitute the bulk of Malta’s human rights violations. If they are not priority, what is?

“At the moment, our top priority is to draw up a national strategy for migrant integration,” he replies without any hesitation. “We’re working on it already with different institutions. Just before this interview we had a meeting with the Employment and Training Corporation, to discuss things like employment conditions; eligibility or otherwise to work in Malta; the different statuses, and what they mean for permits, etc. After this we have a meeting related to lifelong learning…”

Agius contends that the need for co-ordination among different departments is much more keenly felt when it comes to integrating migrants. He acknowledges it is a difficult topic to discuss… largely because not everyone necessarily uses the word to refer to the same thing.

“By integration we don’t only mean integration of migrants… although that’s a large part of it. But there are other communities that are in a sense marginalised, or not fully included. We hope to reach a stage when the word ‘intergration’ is used to refer to all categories, not just foreigners. All the same, migrant integration is a priority, because there are so many related issues…”

Even within the context of foreigners residing in Malta, the word is still frustratingly misused to only refer to asylum seekers. From Agius’ experience, however, this category accounts for only a small part of the broader migration picture.  

“By migrants we also mean EU nationals. While they may have fewer problems, there are still problems we are aware of. One issue that crops up frequently concerns education. Just to mention one category – though it applies to others – Italian migrants are, of course, not well versed in Maltese, and have difficulties also with English. Now, the languages of instruction in Malta are Maltese and English. So if you are unable to speak either, then you have a serious problem fitting into the Maltese school system. The number of Italians in Malta has increased significantly. That’s not an issue related to boat arrivals, but it’s still an integration issue for us…”

Another way in which the word is often misinterpreted is a tendency to shift the responsibility for ‘integration’ fully onto the migrants themselves. 

“For us, ‘integration doesn’t only mean others integrating with our way of life. We also have to have the structures to accommodate them. Sticking to the earlier example: what it means in practice is that the Ministry of Education has to find a way to provide additional language courses for these children, without disrupting the education system too much. I mention this example because it’s not the typical issue people would think of when talking about integration…”

Matters are not helped by the fact that, in many cases, the different departments were themselves speaking different languages (so to speak).

“One of the biggest problems is that there is no single national approach governing all the different departments. One director might consider Maltese language-learning is the most important thing; someone else, however, may be asking English language proficiency. It’s just a hypothetical example, but things like this do happen. If there is no co-ordination between departments, different directors will establish their own procedures…”

How are these issues identified to begin with? Most, Agius explains, will be brought up as complaints by the migrants themselves at the recently formed ‘Forum for Integration Affairs’. 

“On that forum there are representatives of various communities present in Malta – usually community leaders of the different organisations: for example, the Somalis in Malta, or the Russians, Moroccans, you name it. They come round the table to discuss issues of common concern. One issue that emerged as a collective concern relates to the acquisition of residence documents. We are already looking into this. Another issue, affecting all categories, relates to employment. A third point that has emerged is the recognition of foreign qualifications. I must add, however, that the fact that many communities have concerns in common doesn’t automatically make them right. Sometimes there are reasons why, for instance, a permit takes a long time to be issued. I’m just pointing out the complaints, not commenting about whether they’re right or wrong…”

Still, the directorate he heads will also have to address those complaints. At this stage, this involves meeting with communities representatives, then organising separate meetings with the various government departments involved in any given issue.

“You could say we are acting on the migrants’ behalf; but ideally we hope to eventually reduce this role, and instead bring the institutions directly to the forum table: so there will be a face to face conversation about the issues. For example, between ETC officials, and the forum for integration affairs itself. So far, this has not happened.”

Meanwhile, it seems the problems flagged by migrants are not necessarily what most would imagine. 

“One thing that did not come across as a major concern – which is very interesting, when one reads comments on various online newspapers – was the issue of individual antagonism towards migrants from ‘the man in the street’. I’m not saying it isn’t an issue; but it is not raised as a concern at the integration forum. What I’ve been told myself during meetings is that: ‘It does happen, but it’s not that frequent, and it’s not the sort of thing I worry about’. Most tell me that the vast majority of Maltese are hospitable. We were quite surprised, in fact. It was one of the things we wanted to know about…”

What about antagonism towards the directorate itself? While xenophobia might not be a major cause for concern among migrants, it is an issue affecting individuals and NGOs who work in that sector. Suffice it to say that some people involved in migration issues have been singled out for verbal and sometimes even physical violence: the arson attack on Katrine Camilleri’s home springs to mind.

Has Silvan Agius encountered similar hostility or resistance himself?

“I don’t meet it often. That might, however, have to do with the fact that the people we meet in our official capacity are not necessarily representative of the country as a whole. Everybody we talk to in the institutions knows how important it is to have a holistic integration policy.”

Agius acknowledges that this might not reflect the popular mood. However, he invites people to reflect on the reality of the situation.

“Prior to setting up this directorate, we did not necessarily know that Malta was aiming towards this. For a long period of time, the idea was that migrants were coming in, and migrants had to move on. Any attempt at integration was viewed as ‘transitional’. We provided English lessons, perhaps, but the idea was that they would be resettled in Canada, the USA, elsewhere in Europe… and, ‘problem solved’. We now know it’s not like that. The numbers indicate that Malta’s migrant population will continue to increase. I’m not talking about the so-called ‘boat people’. The vast majority are coming from the EU; the second largest category are third country nationals who either have a job in Malta, or have somehow come through legal channels.”

Asylum seekers, he adds, constitute the smallest category by far.

“The thing to bear in mind is that the opposite of integration is not ‘migrants going back to their country’. It’s ghettoes… it’s problems relating to people not fitting in. Not everybody is putting the same effort into integrating. Some will not integrate of their own accord, unless there is an effort to include them. Some might feel that society doesn’t want them; and their coping mechanism may not be to integrate more. They might retreat from society, and build their community away from others…”

And yet – to play the Devil’s Advocate – some of the concerns expressed by opponents of integration are hard to dismiss. Multiculturalism has not been overly successful in other parts of Europe. How would he respond to concerns that similar problems may surface here?

“This may sound like a play on words, but for us it isn’t. We’re not so much in favour of ‘multiculturalism’; we’re in favour of ‘inter-culturalism’. We don’t want to have communities sitting side by side; we want them to mix, and to be a part of the evolving Maltese identity…”

But what makes him so confident that integration will work in Malta, when (to continue playing the Devil’s Advocate) it hasn’t always worked elsewhere?

“Let me offer a reflection of my own experiences. When I lived briefly in Australia, there were two sides to it that I could see. There was ‘multiculturalism’, in the sense that you could go to the huge Chinatown in Sydney… and it really was Chinatown. But then, you could go to other parts where the division between the Chinese community and the white community, or Thai community, or any other ethnicity, was not that obvious anymore. So in Australia, you have both. There are communities sitting side by side; but also intermingling and intermarrying…”

That, he adds, is indeed less true in Europe. “I lived briefly in the Netherlands, and for longer in Belgium. Reflecting on Brussels, which is now at the centre of the storm, so to speak: if you walk through the streets of Molembeek [the district from where the identified Paris terrorists hailed]… what you will see there is not ‘integration’. It’s the opposite of integration. Firstly, the white people who used to live in that area have either moved out, or are in the process of moving out. That is something people on the extreme right don’t want… but I don’t want it, either. Regardless of political views, none of us wants to see it happen in this country. We don’t want to have areas which become ghettoes of one community or another.

Isn’t it a little late, though? One direct consequence of Malta’s previous (and current) immigration policies was to concentrate open and closed detention centres in the south of Malta. Marsa is the obvious case… it may not be Molenbeek, but you certainly can’t call it a perfect example of integration in practice, either…

“I disagree that it’s too late. The situation in Marsa developed over the last 10 years. It could have been handled better, but it wasn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t move on to a better situation. The fact that there are already the beginnings of ghettoization does, however, make it difficult. I’m not saying it will be easy. I’m not painting some migrant integration Utopia that will not encounter difficulties. And we might not achieve all our goals, either. Or maybe we will, but the results will be different from what we expected. I wouldn’t, however, argue that it’s too late…”