Taking integration to the community | Silvan Agius

The Human Rights and Integration Directorate is at the heart of an integration strategy that aims to bring local councils and community groups on board. Its director SILVAN AGIUS reflects on the Souleymane murder and why the harrowing incident must raise the alarm across all society

Silvan Agius, Human rights and Integration Directorate
Silvan Agius, Human rights and Integration Directorate

You’ve been at the heart of Malta’s civil liberties revolution since 2013. Does Malta’s top ranking in the LGBTIQ rankings of Europe mean the country has achieved all it can in this field?

 

Working in Brussels as a Policy Director at ILGA-Europe, my work had a European scope, but, of course, I always kept an eye on developments in Malta in my private time. Until the end of 2012, I never had any contact with the Maltese government except once, when a minister regretfully turned down my invitation for participation in a high-level seminar that I was organising vis-à-vis the recognition of same-sex couples.
That changed in March 2013 following a change of government. Overnight, I started receiving calls for guidance several times a week from officers in Minister Helena Dalli’s office. Subsequently, she invited me to have a word and offered me a position in her secretariat. So yes, I was part of the ‘civil liberties revolution’ – as you called it – from the early stages.   
That revolution is not limited to the LGBTIQ front alone, of course. However, the beauty of Malta’s LGBTIQ progress was that all stages consisted of dialogue between government and civil society through the formation of the consultative council. This ensured that all legislative and policy proposals were discussed and agreed to before they made it to Cabinet and later to Parliament.
In 2013, Malta was 18th in the European index, while today we are on top with a score of 90%. The legal and policy progress is clear. However, have we achieved a social and cultural transformation that allows all LGBTIQ people full inclusion in society? I believe that while we have made social and cultural progress as well, there is still much room for greater openness and inclusion.
This is why we now need to focus on equality mainstreaming across the different sectors of society. Recent claims around a so-called ‘ex-gay’ identity, and the stoking of fire against the delivery of age-appropriate sex education in schools clearly revealed that homophobia and transphobia as still with us, and we need to continue to address discrimination systematically.  

 

Straight on to the sticker controversy – what do you think went wrong, and why the backlash? I thought it was an attempt at businesses to use their inclusion training to attract the pink pound, but also as a guarantee of safety and security for vulnerable groups, especially trans people or maybe even gay families in those settings where heteronormative/cisgender folks are comfortable (such as restaurants and bars) and where serving staff, usually foreign, might display inappropriate treatment of these people…

The fact that you refer to it as the sticker controversy shows that this work was taken out of context, that is, its strong educational aspect never came out. This campaign is about voluntary business engagement in order to achieve the highest equality standards when interacting with clients and employees. The sticker is a secondary element.
Similar initiatives already exist in Malta with regard to gender and disability and no controversy ever emerged. The #AllWelcome campaign is no different to those. In fact, its four pillars relate to the respect for human dignity, the elimination of discrimination, support for LGBTIQ staff and adequate representation of diversity in publicity campaigns. Following commitment to these principles and the attendance of training, companies would be allowed to make use of the campaign logo to show that they meet the quality assurance of the campaign.
Malta is not the birthplace of such LGBTIQ welcome initiatives. In fact, several businesses in major cities already form part of them, and I believe that LGBTIQ tourists especially would benefit from a visible welcome here as well, as would other minorities.
As for the discussion around the pink pound, I have no comments to make. This campaign was inspired by the sense of inclusion and security that we wanted to promote. Nothing else. If that spurs economic progress, then great, so be it.

Do you think the march for more gay rights, gender identity and trans rights, has been far more advanced than, say, other anti-discrimination fronts?

What is certain is that it has been more visible. In recent years, Malta has also make great progress in the area of disability, to mention one, but somehow that progress did not attract the top spot in the news as much.
As for the area of migrant integration, the Human Rights and Integration Directorate has led to the formulation of Malta’s first integration strategy in 2017, and we have since set up an Integration Unit consisting of nine employees, who are working hard to deliver the actions of that strategy. Therefore, they work closely with MCAST and the University of Malta to deliver language courses in Maltese, English and cultural orientation, with the Local Councils Association for the adoption of the Local Integration Charter by local councils, and so on.
We are making headway, and the impact is palpable, but I am well aware that we are still not meeting the current needs. In view of this, discussions are in progress for the expansion of the various services that are offered.  
With regard to racism, I can confirm that our Directorate was given the green light to expand its operations in this area by having the Integration Unit promote equality on the grounds of race and ethic origin and tackle racism, while other parts of government are gearing up to address racism more systematically. I hope that we will have results to show in the near future.

The murder of Lassane Souleymane shook those who bothered to care: do you fear that this senseless murder could have been prevented?

I was very shocked myself, and could not sleep properly for several days after the report of the murder came out. The circumstances of the incident distressed me a lot.
A Eurobarometer survey issued last year indicated that Malta has the highest rate of online hate speech in the EU. This fact is very troubling and I am very pleased that the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security will be addressing this issue directly through the setting up of a specialised anti-hate speech unit.
Hate crimes do take place across Europe and the rest of the world, even in countries with strong prevention mechanisms. What I can surely say is that his murder needs to raise the alarm across all of our society, and we need to ensure that we include and integrate race and ethic minorities and migrants into Maltese society. This will address stigma and prejudice, and reduce segregation.
Importantly, the Prime Minister organised a meeting between himself, Minister Dalli and the members of the Forum for Integration Affairs immediately after the racist motive behind Lassane Souleymane’s murder was confirmed. That meeting was very positive, and now a number of proposals are being developed and discussed.  
During that meeting he was more than clear that racism and racial hatred have no place in Malta and that government will do its utmost to address this problem.

The Prime Minister’s speech in Xewkija the day of the arrests set the tone to a political will to stamp out racism: but is too little, too late? Has our political class ever been serious about racism and integration?

We need to tackle racism in the same systematic way in which we have tackled homophobia and transphobia. This means that the message needs to be as sharp as that of the Prime Minister, and the conviction behind that message and the actions that follow equally well communicated.
As Malta becomes increasingly cosmopolitan and intercultural, the least we can do is to have clear messages around equality for all and that racism and segregation have no place in our society.
I trust that the government will do the right thing in this area, with the same conviction that I had when I spoke about integration to Raphael Vassallo in the ‘Failure to integration is not an option’ interview, soon after my appointment as director in 2015.
Success will not depend on the government alone though. Society needs to be receptive to the work that will be carried out, and everybody will need to do their part to break down stereotypes and promote an anti-racist culture. I therefore call on community organisations and sports clubs, amongst others, to inspire change at the community level through pro-active work and engagement with race and ethnic minorities in their localities.

Hamrun is an interesting example of contradictions on integration: on the one hand, you have fantastic ‘ethnic’ business sprouting up, on the other hand you had two Patrijotti candidates standing for the local council, not to forget other political attempts at using this town to raise fears on immigration. Do you feel that residents there are short-changed due to a lack of regeneration or infrastructural investment from the State, or because their concerns on safety and on rowdy, down-and-out (poor) migrant workers, are not addressed?

I have often reflected on the difficulties that fast-paced change may have on local communities, and the compounding of those difficulties when not enough is done at a local level to invest in community support and regeneration.
Therefore, my colleagues and I are full of empathy towards those persons who have experienced such difficulties because of this change, and we definitely need to hear them and address their concerns. Similarly, however, we need to take care of recent residents and open the space for their integration in the community.
Precisely because migrant integration can only really happen at a neighbourhood and community level, the Integration Unit launched the Local Integration Charter towards the end of last year, and we already have 21 signatory councils. Others are expected to join, now that the elections are over. It would be great if this process leads to different integration initiatives that help to forge new friendships and build new networks mirroring the transformation of the respective locality.

Do you think the same problem exists in St Paul’s Bay? How should political parties, in whose name the local councillors are elected, treat the reality of our multicultural towns?

The day-to-day realities related to migration are different in different towns and villages and this is because of several factors. What is certain though is that all towns have EU nationals and third country nationals within them, and therefore the work of local councils needs to address this one way or another.
St Paul’s Bay primary school is one of the most ethnically diverse in Malta and during a recent visit, I was pleased to see that student representation in the school was equally diverse. This shows that at the school level there is no segregation between students in view of the country of origin or other factors. That reality can serve as an inspiration for adults and the political process. Our Directorate will support all local integration initiatives as our resources will permit.  

Does Malta need a sociological and anthropological study to get to grips with our multi-cultural society as it evolves?

As we increasingly learn about the situation of migrants in Malta through our one-to-one meetings with them, we are building a wealth of knowledge of the recurrent issues, as well as the issues that the next integration strategy needs to address. Sociological and anthropological studies will surely help us build a fuller picture in terms of local interaction, as well as issues and tensions, and would be a welcome source of information.

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