[WATCH] Mixed messages on migration | Ahmed Bugre

Ahmed Bugre, director of the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants (FSM) stresses the need for a consistent, long-term integration strategy for asylum seekers

Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants director Ahmed Bugre (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants director Ahmed Bugre (Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
Long-term integration system for asylum seekers required

As Josef Stalin once notoriously remarked, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” 

In Malta, statistics of that nature tend to run into the ‘thousands’ rather than ‘millions’... but as the recent death of a homeless man from Somalia also illustrated, such statistics – even if proportionally much smaller – can also prove tragic when viewed from an individual perspective.

Haji, the 45-year-old man whose lifeless body was retrieved from under a Marsa bridge, gave both a name and a personal identity to a phenomenon that is otherwise as faceless and impersonal as the figures cited by Stalin. Ahmed Bugre knew him personally: as we meet for this interview, he is finalising preparations for the funeral, to be held the following day (Friday). 

Yet Haji was also but one of thousands of individuals caught up in similar circumstances. Various terms have been concocted to refer to these people: migrants, asylum seekers, ‘klandestini’, and so forth. All seem to have the same effect as ‘statistics’...  the reality of the situation is at once depersonalised, and reduced to a vague, shadowy category that defies any form of empathy or identification.

Bugre founded FSM in 2010, shortly after the NGO he was previously involved with – Suret Il-Bniedem – terminated its contract with the government to run the Marsa Open Centre. Along with FSM, he also runs the ‘Third Country National Network’, an umbrella organisation representing around 15 different migrant communities and groups. 

“Our aim was first of all to continue what we were doing at Marsa,” he tells me at the FSM’s offices in San Gwann. “We had embarked upon some reform initiatives there: we were putting a system into place at the centre, and were looking into some of the infrastructural problems. As you know, the Marsa Open Centre was notorious for the state of its toilets, and so on. But the foundation also served another purpose: we wanted to empower the migrants themselves to have a voice of their own. This we plan to do in three ways: one, looking at integration; two, looking at the contribution of migrants to Maltese society, and three, sharing our experiences with the world outside of Malta.”

Originally offering support mostly to former MOC residents, Bugre’s  foundation has since widened its remit. “We are not looking only at people who arrive here by boat – mainly, sub-Saharan African migrants – although these are still the majority of the people we interact with and see. But we also now deal with Filipinos, Serbs, Russians, and various other categories of people. Not all are ‘irregular’. Many have arrived here with a Visa. Some of them might have a permit to work; others might not. However, we deal with all types of people – Arabs, Eastern Europeans, people from Asia... for although all these migrant communities are different, they all have problems in common. The main issue has to do with integration. Malta doesn’t have an integration policy, and that is one of the key struggles that migrants face...”

This problem was brought very emphatically to the fore in recent weeks, after an EU-level agreement with Mali – among other African countries – resulted in the sudden arrest of a number of asylum seekers who now face deportation. It transpired that some of the persons arrested had been legally working here for years.

For Ahmed Bugre, this development is doubly ominous. On one level, it raises questions concerning human rights and basic justice. On another, it exposes deep contradictions in Malta’s overall immigration and integration policies.

Let’s start with the human rights angle. The Malians arrested earlier this month were all technically failed asylum seekers, even if some had been given legal temporary work permits. The government defends its intention to deport these people on the ground that they are here illegally. Isn’t there some truth to that argument? 

“I am not saying that deportation should never be considered. People who arrive irregularly, without papers – and who have no right to asylum – can and should be deported. That’s not the question. The question is, when? After how long? If a person arrives this month, and goes through the whole asylum process... it is found he doesn’t qualify for asylum... there is an appeal, and he fails that too. Then yes, you put that person on a plane and send him back. But if you’ve allowed that person to live and work here for 10 years...  to pay taxes and national insurance contributions... and then, suddenly, you take him back to detention, lock him up like an animal, and then deport him: what about the contributions he has paid? What about his taxes? This is the unfairness, the injustice and the immorality of how it is being implemented...”

There is also the question of returning people to unsafe territories, which is itself a possible human rights violation.

“Countries like Nigeria or Mali are unstable. Mali in particular is not a safe place. Three quarters of it is desert. Young people there cannot find jobs... and we know that migration is not pushed only by war. Mali is in conflict, too, and this is one of the push-factors. But climate change is another factor forcing people to travel. Poverty has been acknowledged by the STGs to be a major push-factor. These people have had to cross the desert, then the sea, to get here. The fact that the government could not deport them shows that there is a difficulty returning people to that country. Meanwhile, they have lived and worked here for five, six, seven, eight years or more....”

They were also given to understand that their presence here would eventually be regularised. “They were legitimately expecting that – since the government gave them valid documentation – they would able to start a new life in Malta. I know people in those circumstances who have had children here, and those children are now attending secondary school. They have never experienced their parents’ home country. They were born here through no fault of their own; they were given schooling here, they speak Maltese... are we just going to send these families back, without giving the opportunity of a naturalisation process?  Deportation puts these children in jeopardy. What is the best interest of the child?”

This brings us to the contradictory policies. On paper, Malta claims to have an integration policy that proves to be invisible in practice.  

“How long can you be in Malta without ever having to think of a nationality, or even residency?” Bugre muses. “That is one of the major problems facing African migrants: not just the ones facing deportation. Even those who have been granted refugee status, or subsidiary protection, and who have been here for 10 years or more... these people still don’t know what their future might be. They are basically in limbo. Then you have those whose asylum application, at the time, had failed, but who, through no fault of their own, could not be returned to their home country. The issue might be lack of papers, lack of diplomatic channels... either way, they have been living here, and have been granted a temporary status [mostly ‘THP-n’ – temporary humanitarian protection – new’], which is in itself a form of regularisation process. It was issued by the former Refugee Commissioner, in recognition of the fact that these people could not be left in a legal limbo...”

The recent mass arrests have effectively reversed that policy overnight... raising questions about the status of other categories of failed asylum seekers who have not so far been rounded up for deportation.

“These people have been given same form of temporary protection – albeit local – and some basic rights, including the right to work. Again, however: how long can a status be considered ‘temporary’, when these people are working with a valid work permit, paying taxes and contributing to national insurance? Where is their protection at law? They would be paying taxes, contributing to the national economy... but they have no right to social benefits beyond basic healthcare. They have no right to a pension, even though they are contributing to the pension fund.”

By accepting NI contributions, Bugre suggests, the government is giving a clear indication that these people are entitled to start thinking about their future retirement in Malta. “This is where the problem starts for most of the people. What we try to do is help them, not only to get or keep a job, but also to understand Maltese society in general. We intervene in terms of renting apartments, conflict with employers... if somebody dies, we have to inform the family, organise the funeral... tomorrow, in fact, we have the funeral of Haji, who died under the Marsa bridge...”

The full cycle of life, from birth till death, becomes visible in the process. “When a child is born, we visit and see what is needed, what can be done for the family, what their rights are at law... all this, we do to support the communities to integrate in Maltese society...”

But such efforts are hampered by the striking inconsistencies of the existing regulatory framework. “For me, the issue is the lack of a policy which looks at the reality of migration, from the point of arrival onwards. Because of this policy gap, each ministry and each department that deals with migration – there are several, because the system is very fragmented – looks at both the issue and the individual from a different perspective. This affects the person’s ability to integrate. Integration is not just about being allowed to live in Malta; it is also about being given the prospect of long-term residency, or even citizenship. That is when a person becomes fully part of society. If there is no regulation, no law, no policy... no procedure to apply for citizenship or residency...  how can there be integration?”

And yet, the government does claim to have a policy for the integration of migrant communities. There is even a Human Rights and Integration Directorate, ensconced within the Civil Rights Ministry...

Bugre however stresses that an integration policy also needs to have a clear, consistent vision.  “Let me give an example. A few years ago, there was no such thing as a local disability policy in Malta. Then the government came up with a policy document, followed by a law... and today, disability is well-regulated. There is a Commission that looks out for the rights of these people:  the system works well. Yes, there are persons with disability who still struggle to integrate. But we have gone far beyond what existed before. The same thing happened with the LGBTI group. Malta is still a very strong Catholic country: I remember the resistance against policies such as civil unions and, for instance, divorce. But the government still took the steps it felt were needed; it came up with policies, laws, consultation processes, and so on. Today, we have marriage equality. Whether you like it or not, it is now a reality at law...”

No such advances have been registered with Malta’s declared integration policy, he adds. 

“When it comes to the integration of African people in Malta, that is not even discussed. This, to me, is where the problem lies. It looks as though there is a general rejection of the people who have arrived here irregularly... even if they are refugees. Should such people remain refugees the rest of their lives? There is this perception out there that one day, Somalia will get better. So all the Somalis who are in Malta with subsidiary protection: they should remain here in limbo, for as long as it takes for Somalia to improve. How long will that take? Haji had been living here since 2004. He died under a bridge aged 45. He had been here a quarter of his life. He hadn’t seen his wife or children in all that time. He died without seeing them. And some have been here longer. I know one person who has been here since 2002: he still goes and renews his work permit every year. How long must you live and work in Malta, to be given the right to apply for citizenship... or at least, long-term residency?”

Such questions seem destined to remain unanswered, Bugre suggests, for as long as Malta resists the concept of integration. “To solve this issue is actually to ask the question: do we really mean what we say when we talk about integration? There is a ministry responsible for integration... but what does that mean, when the decision to deport these people was not even taken by that ministry, but by the Ministry of Home Affairs? We may talk about integration, but migration is still viewed as a security issue. These people who have lived and worked in Malta for 10 years, who have paid taxes... who renew their permits regularly, so their faces are known; their ID numbers are known... what security concern are they posing to this country?”

Security is not the only concern, however. There is also the question of sustainability.  Even those well-disposed towards migrant communities are worried about the toll taken by what seems to be a never-ending influx. They argue that Malta is ‘too small to cope’. Don’t they have a point?

“Malta is a small country, and we all agree that there has to be a proper management system of people coming and going. We already acknowledge that – or at least, the government acknowledges it – through the IIP programme. People who are ‘high-value’ and have money, can come and buy a passport... and they can come and live here as Maltese citizens. So there is space. There is space for everyone. But it has to be controlled.”

Apart from such logistical considerations, Bugre invites me to consider the economic benefits of migration. 

“Every day we get phone calls here from Maltese employers, scared of losing their own employees. They tell us that they’ve trained this person, invested in him, that he is a very trusted worker... so why is he going to be deported? They are even willing to pay fees to retain their employees.  If there wasn’t room, employers would not be calling us in tears. Malta always needs workers. There are Italians working here... Spaniards... Asians... Africans. Would the construction industry even function without African workers? Same for garbage collection, cleaning beaches... where can you go in Malta today, and not see an African person working? From factories, to cleaning of the streets... there is a demand for workers. In Malta, the problem is not lack of space or lack of demand. It is lack of management.”