‘Integrate, work hard, don’t give up’

The Maltese must try to understand that multiculturalism is now becoming a global phenomenon - Marie Louise Coleiro Preca

Marie Louise Coleiro Preca
Marie Louise Coleiro Preca

After months of waiting and a missed attempt on my part, I finally got to sit down with the President of the Republic to talk about migration and the effects of the influx on Malta.

I met Marie Louise Coleiro Preca twice before, during a visit at an open centre when she was social policy minister, and then as head of state at a conference we both participated in. Her popularity with the public and her passion for social reform and justice is in full view when one understands her desire for equality in the community.

She says she champions the rule of law when I ask her about Malta’s continued use of mandatory detention for asylum seekers, a system that incarcerates asylum seekers for as long as 12 months, and sometimes even longer.

But she also says that the government is reviewing its detention policy in general. “It is important to note that unaccompanied minors are not being put in detention any more. The Prime Minister’s call to stop the detention of minors is a step in the right direction,” she says of Joseph Muscat’s call on 13 March, on the eve of her appointment, to stop the detention of children.

But she insisted that Malta remains a small geographical state with real constraints, and that the country will continue to call upon other EU states to do their part when it comes to migration.

“Migration is not an issue for Malta or Italy or Mediterranean countries alone, it’s an EU issue,” she says, making it a point that the rights of people fleeing persecution, war zones and even material deprivation must be upheld.

In her previous role as social policy minister, Coleiro Preca had insisted on the need to educate migrant children. She tells me she has brought together NGOs, both local and international, not only for dialogue but also to put a plan to action when it comes to unaccompanied minors.

“In a few weeks’ time, my office will release a report on the matter together with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and the International Organisation for Migration. It’s a historic report in that these two international NGOs, which work closely with migrants, are involved and they are in a good position to guide the government.

“The presidency is a non-executive office so I would like it to be looked at as an inspirational role.”

But migrants’ integration tends to be an issue seldom brought up in the current debate, so what can be done to change that?

“I continue to emphasize that Malta is a small island geographically and with a lot of constraints, and that means it cannot integrate all migrants… I say this with much sadness but also with a sense of reality.”

But Coleiro Preca also says she wants to call upon migrants to do their part when it comes to their integration into Maltese society, urging them to learn the language, and understand Maltese culture and tradition. “I also want the Maltese to exercise their kindness, a virtue they are known for globally when it comes to supporting migrants and people who have been through a lot.”

The President is also adamant that dialogue is needed in a bid to prevent xenophobia from thriving. “The Maltese must try to understand that multiculturalism is now becoming a global phenomenon,” she says, referring to social media platforms like Facebook making the world a global village.

“Migration will continue, because people need to move away… and when we speak about migration it’s not by people who come by boat only. A lot of nationalities arrive in Malta by air,” she says, referring to the many different, legal forms of migration that also contribute to Malta’s multicultural fabric.

“I understand the pressure that comes with multiculturalism in a small island like Malta, but the beauty that comes with it when it is understood is immense. We tend to be insular because we are an island. But no man is an island… the horizons are wide even for Maltese youth to follow their ambitions.”

Coleiro Preca also says that migration has to be tackled in a bid not to drain African society of its youth and talented people, when I ask her whether Malta’s constant calls to the EU to take up its migration burden is really bearing any fruit.

“Migration is not just a Maltese issue, but a global one. I would not like Africa to be emptied of its young people. I would like them to celebrate their wealth, but if they want to move and go after their ambitions they should be able to do so… With low birth rates and unsustainable social systems, Europe can benefit from migration.

“My advice to migrant youth and children who will know Malta as their only home ten years from now is simple: appreciate Maltese culture and tradition, integrate, work hard, and never give up.”