Desperately in need of a long-term plan | Maria Pisani

In wake of the recent riot at the Hal Far reception centre, MARIA PISANI - spokesperson of the Integra Foundation, and lecturer at the Faculty of Social Wellbeing – argues that Malta has yet to make the necessary changes to adapt to new social realities

Maria Pisani
Maria Pisani

Migration is most commonly depicted in terms of numbers. People often complain (not without good reason) that the number of arrivals is just too high to cope with. Yet others also argue that the real issue is not about numbers at all, but management: i.e., that Malta could cope with the volume, if the situation were somehow managed better. Where would position yourself in that equation?

There is absolutely no denying that Malta has had a difficult year in terms of arrivals. I’m sure that by the end of the year, we will once again be at the top, globally, in terms of the number of asylum seekers per capita. So I do see this as a numbers issue. At advocacy level, I, too, keep saying that… this can’t go on. Malta definitely needs support, in many different forms: including, but not limited to relocation. 

But it is about more than just numbers. There is clearly a lack of commitment, and also the absence of any real will to see things through. That is the situation, and it cannot be denied.

To take a more historical perspective, however: asylum seekers started arriving in the late 1990s. By 2002, it had become a regular occurrence. There was a brief lull as a result of an agreement between Gaddafi and Berlusconi – that’s how long ago we are talking about – and also for around three years after 2015, when the Italian government likewise had some form of informal agreement. So ironically, at the height of the refugee ‘crisis’ in Europe, Malta stopped receiving asylum seekers.

This should have been the perfect opportunity to come up with a long-term plan… because you need to be living with the unicorns to think that this was not going to continue. Sure enough, there was a change in government in Italy, and we were back to square one again… only with increased numbers, and a new reception policy that hadn’t been tested up until that time. Not to mention fewer reception centres.

Another issue is that the local context has in the meantime shifted. The cost of renting property has skyrocketed, so the possibilities of transitioning into the community are also fewer. This is a challenging issue for everybody in Malta, not just asylum seekers and refugees; but when you intersect property prices with issues such as race, it becomes even more problematic.

The recent incidents at Hal Far have certainly indicated the extent of the problem. Would you say incidents such as these are also the result of our previous failure to come up with a long-term integration strategy?

Whilst obviously not condoning the violence [at Hal Far] – which must have been very frightening for the staff at that time; I’ve been in similar contexts myself (though never as bad), and… it’s horrible. It’s horrible for the people who have to face it; and also, for the people who live there. Let’s not forget that well over 1,000 people live in that centre, and they’re not all responsible for what happened.

But it was all avoidable. It could have been avoided, had we come up with a long-term strategy: a commitment to adequate reception; and more investment, not just in infrastructure, but also in terms of staff and capacity building. At the moment, what we have is a detention policy that was found to be illegal around three weeks ago. This is a serious situation that desperately needs to be addressed.

We also feel there is space for more co-operation with NGOs. On an operational level, I must say that this is something we already have; but it needs to be strengthened.

The infrastructural situation you describe sounds no different from the one we’ve been reading about for – as you said earlier – for over 20 years. Why do you think it has proven so difficult for Malta to pull its socks up when it comes to managing this issue better?

The problem is there are a number of bottlenecks. The Initial Reception Centres are overcrowded; people are being detained at the Safi barracks; and there are not enough open centres to cater for the increase in arrivals. This, in itself, is evidence of why a long-term plan was so sorely needed. The increase in arrivals was predictable. But having a plan, in itself, is still not enough. Extra support is needed. To begin with, there are some people who need ongoing care: in particular, vulnerable groups such as unaccompanied minors, families with small children, and so on. But most asylum seekers are young, able-bodied men who are ready and willing to be employed. These, too, need extra support to make that transition into the community. The sooner and more effectively this is done, the better for all of us; not only because they will be able to start contributing to the economy, but also because they’d be able to afford better housing within the community, rather than live in ghettoes. Hal Far has now become almost a small town in its own right; but it is a town with no facilities and zero investment. [Pause] I can carry on talking like this for hours, but at the end of the day it’s a very simple argument that we’re making. There needs to be commitment…

This is precisely what has been lacking so far, though. Earlier this month, Europe’s interior ministers meet to discuss (among other things) the draft agreement drawn up at an earlier meeting in Malta. With few exceptions, other EU member states refused to commit to the deal. So when you say ‘there needs to be more commitment’, does that extend to the European Union as a whole?

Yes, certainly. I feel I must stress that the EU needs to do much, much more. We support all lobbying efforts in that direction. But I don’t think the argument should be, ‘we need commitment because the EU is somehow going to benefit’. The reality is that Malta – everybody living here – is also suffering as a result of the lack of an inclusion policy. So it is in our best interests to address these issues. As long as you have social exclusion – which takes many different forms, including racism – and as long as here is a huge gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, across the board… in particular, when it comes to asylum seekers and refugees, because it coincides with intersectionalities regarding race and other factors… when all this is in place, society as a whole loses out. If we are committed to social well-being, then it means supporting the well-being of everyone living here. That is the only way we can have a win-win situation. It will always be ‘lose-lose’, when there are social divisions. We can see examples of this in many different places in Malta: not just in terms of deprivation and marginalisation, but also in heightened hate-speech, aggression and violence. Nobody enjoys living in that kind of environment. So, yes, there needs to be more commitment from the EU. Yes, Malta needs to visibly demonstrate its commitment to integration. But is in the interest of all of us to invest in more social inclusion.

We also need to start looking at the wider context. It is true that Malta has been receiving asylum seekers for 20 years. But in that time, Malta has also gone through its own dramatic changes, which have nothing specifically to do with asylum….

‘Specifically with asylum’, perhaps not. But surely there is a connection between Malta’s dramatic changes, and immigration in the wider sense?

I was just coming to that: we now have a declared economic policy that relies on migration – and for obvious reasons I have no issue with that at all, myself. But it doesn’t mean that we can celebrate having a diverse population, without making the changes that need to be made to support this process. Obviously, the area I am very focused on concerns asylum seekers and refugees. But that’s not the only consideration. Population growth, in itself, has implications across the board. We need investment in our education system, healthcare… even in our roads, which are now used by many more people. We need to focus on environmental issues, too: more safe spaces, green spaces, and so on. Not to mention our sense of national identity, and what it means to be Maltese. Even if most of these people will not, eventually become Maltese – and the majority won’t, of course; least of all, those who are beneficiaries of temporary, subsidiary protection – the reality is that we are still living in a multicultural, multi-lingual, and diverse society. Yet we have not made the necessary investment.

But what sort of support structures do you have in mind?

For instance: when we say ‘foreign labour’, we sometimes overlook the fact that the people coming here are also human beings. As such, they need to provided with the necessary support mechanisms so that we can all adjust to this reality. It cannot be just a matter of shipping them in, and assuming that all they’re going to do here is work. Basing an economic policy on foreign labour, also means providing for the needs of the people who come to the country.

Also, there is an issue of dependency. If all foreigners moved out tomorrow, the economic consequences would be catastrophic. With so much dependence on foreign labour, entire industries would implode. So I think we do need to start a conversation about where we are heading. Do we want to be part of a globalised world, or do we want to remain locked in the models of the past?

This raises a small irony. ‘Globalisation’ was once a buzz-word in Maltese politics… especially in the years building up to EU accession, which was itself rooted in the premise of ‘taking our rightful place on the international stage’. Yet immigration is also rooted in the same premise of a ‘globalised world’…

In some levels, we have not just ‘embraced’ globalisation, but really held it close to heart. But at the same time, it seems we are denying the existence of the other side that comes with globalisation. By necessity, it means learning how to live in a diverse population. And we haven’t made the shift. In fact, we haven’t even started a conversation about making that transition. It’s not just the asylum system that is struggling. It is much, much bigger than that. The whole system is struggling to cope.

When it comes to asylum, however, I have been arguing for many years now that we are dealing with a 21st century reality, using 19th century tools and approaches. That is not going to work. There is much to celebrate about globalisation; but there is also much to challenge and question. There is heartache and trauma involved in this process.  We need to talk about all of that, too. And by ‘we’, I mean everybody living in Malta: Maltese and foreigners alike, regardless of race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, or any other factor.  

I think that sweeping these issues under the carpet, or making great shows of strength and defiance, isn’t going to get us anywhere. It only reinforces the toxicity.

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