[WATCH] Migrants sleep rough to renew ID cards • Minister says system is ‘inhumane’

Migrants sleep out at night to apply for their e-residence card as public service is only available to them on one day of the week - Friday

A migrant sleeps outside Evans Building to make sure he gets in at the identity card office once it opens on Friday morning.
A migrant sleeps outside Evans Building to make sure he gets in at the identity card office once it opens on Friday morning.
Home Affairs minister Carmelo Abela (Photo: Ray Attard)
Home Affairs minister Carmelo Abela (Photo: Ray Attard)
Tucked in to a sleeping bag: sleeping rough in Valletta on Thursday night just to be able to renew an e-residence card.
Tucked in to a sleeping bag: sleeping rough in Valletta on Thursday night just to be able to renew an e-residence card.
[WATCH] Migrants sleep out at night to apply for their e-residence card

It requires patience, a strong will, and also timing.

As dawn breaks every Friday morning, the identity card office at the Evans Building in Valletta sends out its guard to meet some 150 migrants – of various African nationalities, some Middle Eastern – who have been queuing up all night to get into the office and apply for an e-residence card.

As the automatic gate opens to let in the first employees at around 6am, the guard comes up to the mi- grants assembled outside. Many of them have slept rough, coming as early as 10pm on Thursday night to put down their name on a list handled by one of the migrants.

But the guard has bad news: the ID office is only going to take in 40 clients.

A murmur of discontent and then chaos. Infighting breaks out, as two-thirds of the people waiting for their e-residence card are going to brave another night next Friday.

“I have to renew my ID card and I only have one day to do that, which is Friday, and there are a lot of people here. Without it, you cannot re- new your working permit.

“I’m working here paying taxes, to go to work. It is not fair. Once we are working, paying taxes, we should be able to renew our document free and fair like the others. I have come and sleep in this weather just to be able to work to support my family,” Stephen Morphy, a Liberian migrant who has been in Malta since 2003, complains.

Morphy stands out as a living example of the failure of a system that is actually pushing him into illegality: here he is braving the cold January night trying to secure a le- gal status so that he can continue working, but instead he is treated as a second-class citizen by having just one day in which he can have his e- residence card renewed.

Once migrants qualify for protection the first thing they have to do is to apply for an e-residence card. Without it they cannot access public services such as benefits, work permits, or even open a bank account.

I passed through this same nightmare years ago upon getting refugee protection. I was shocked to realise that migrants have to sleep overnight on Thursday so as to access the service on Friday morning – while the office is open to the public Monday to Friday.

I left home on Thursday at 9:30pm to see the situation for myself. Along the way down to Evans Building, on Merchants’ Street I encountered a Gambian national on the street. Kante Yamadou, in Malta since 2007, told me that many migrants had already convened outside Evans Building but that they had been dispersed by the police.

The police probably don’t know that many of those migrants will not access the service in the morning and that will prevent them from getting a work permit. By 11pm, many of the migrants had returned to Evans Building, now getting ready for the long cold night ahead of them.

They organised themselves and started to write a list of the migrants, one after the other, in order to create an ordered queuing system. By the time we wrote down the list of names, the queue totalled 68 at 1:30am.

It was hard for them to open up with me. Many of the migrants come from countries where democracy and free speech are non-existent, and they fear they will be in trouble if they speak out

Omar Siz Ahmed, from Somalia, arrived in Malta in 2006. “It’s very cold. We have no choice... because we can only come here on Friday. You have to sleep here all time. If we had three days in the week, we could have some choice. But when it’s only Friday, it’s too little time for so many people needing the service.”

Like him, Morphy finds it frustrating that he is facing this situation after living in Malta for 12 years, in a place he now calls home.

By 2am, the place resembles a refugee camp, with mats and blankets thrown onto the pavement. More migrants were coming, having walked from Msida and Gzira.

Chaos erupted at five in the morning when the guards came to work and told them that the office was only going to see 40 people that day. Even the migrant women who were afraid of speaking out earlier in the night got involved in the scuffle, in the hopes of accessing a spot. This was truly survival of the fittest at its best, with migrants fighting it out among themselves to secure them a limited number of tickets for the right to work.

There is no doubt that the system here has failed these members of

the community who justifiably feel they are being robbed of equal access to the service, by being granted just one day to renew their e-ID.

Questioned by MaltaToday, the new home affairs minister, Carmelo Abela, has dubbed the situation “inhumane” after having assessed the matter personally.

“The decision to allow migrants to apply on a particular day of the week was taken long before Identity Malta was established. In 2014 Identity Malta organised an outreach programme to accept residence applications from the premises of the Refugee Commission and the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS). Since then, the number of migrants applying at AWAS decreased significantly and eventually the service stopped being offered from their office. The service offered from the Refugee Commission is still ongoing,” he said.

“Lately, for a number of reasons, there was an increase in the applications at the Department for Citizenship and Expatriate Affairs in Valletta,” Abela said, since expired documents were all being issued on the same date and therefore had to be renewed on the same date.

Abela said that in a bid to reduce queues, Identity Malta will be opening an office close to the Hal Far open centre, on a more regular basis.

Whether this could make the system more efficient, or indeed exacerbate its ghettoization is yet to be seen.