Updated | Foreigners laid off during Covid-19 crisis will be deported, minister says

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri says foreigners who lose their jobs at this time would have to return to their home country • Opposition MP Beppe Fenech Adami says foreigners losing jobs could result in social unrest and a spike in criminality

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri
Economy Minister Silvio Schembri

Updated at 11pm with reactions to the minister's comments

Economy Minister Silvio Schembri said that if any foreigners lose their jobs during the Covid-19 epidemic crisis, they would have to return home immediately or risk deportation.

“Charity begins at home. Our main focus is Maltese workers. When foreign workers lose their jobs, they will have to go back to their country,” Schembri said in parliament on Tuesday.

Parliament discussed the coronavirus epidemic for the first time on Tuesday as Finance Minister Edward Scicluna and Schembri delivered speeches among others. Schembri warned that the economy would not be the same as previously after the crisis subsides.

“Nobody knows for sure for how long this situation will last but a small budget will be announced by the end of this week to safeguard jobs,” he said.

Opposition MP Beppe Fenech Adami warned that there might be social unrest as a result of foreigners losing their jobs, with Malta possibly experiencing a spike in criminality.

Referring to third-country nationals who required a work permit to work in Malta, Schembri said that his ministry was liaising with the Home Affairs Ministry to make sure that they leave the country once they lose their jobs.

“Talks are already underway with Home Affairs Minister Byron Camilleri so that foreigners in Malta without a work permit would have to return to their country the moment they lose their jobs,” Schembri said, adding that work permits were not going to be renewed.

At the risk of stirring some controversy, he said, the priority was safeguarding the Maltese people and their jobs.

Shock and outrage: taxpayer foreigners have the same rights as Maltese citizens

Schembri's comments in parliament sparked a sensational reaction on social media. While a number of Maltese commenters praised his statement, others didn't take too kindly, with expat groups on Facebook saying such a statement was "racist", "illegal", "bigoted" and "disrespectful." 

While Schembri referred to "foreigners" during his parliamentary address, he later on specifically referred to third-country nationals, especially employees in the tourism industry. Many were confused as to whether his comments were also directed at EU nationals. 

So much so, that the Maltese Italian Chamber of Commerce said in a statement that it hoped that such comments were the result of a misunderstanding.

"At this moment we should be thinking about protecting everyone's health, rather than finding means to divide us. Coronavirus does not distinguish between nationalities. We are sure that the minister's words are the result of a misunderstanding," the chamber said.

It added that many companies owned by expats and Italians have made huge investments in Malta and employ thousands of people. As taxpayers, foreigners have the same rights as Maltese citizens, it said. 

On Twitter, Nationalist Party MEP Roberta Metsola ascribed political intentions to Schembri's statements after saying that "this is wrong on so many levels."

"Creating strawmen enemies in an effort to shore up domestic, district level, electoral concerns. It is that cynical at a time when we need everyone on these islands to push back against #COVID19," she wrote.