Isolation is ruining refugees’ reputation, MPs told by migrants and aid workers

A committee of MPs has been told how migrants are exploited by employers seeking cheap labour, then rented out sub-standard housing and neglected when mental health problems afflict them

Police checks will not solve ghettoization, but suitable integration programmes are what migrant communities need, a joint parliamentary committee for family and social affairs was told.

The committee hearing a “discussion on the ghettoization of immigrants in Malta” saw a number of stakeholders highlighting various problems they believed were contributing to growing tensions between locals and immigrants in towns such as Marsa.

Catherine Camilleri, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, said that while the enforcement of the law was needed to tackle crime, it was important to appreciate that the issue was far more complicated. “If we’re going to talk about enforcement we can’t just talk about people relieving themselves under a tree,” Camilleri said, pointing out that the problem was largely one of people living in poverty.

She said many migrants were exploited in Malta, because labour laws were not enforced, which in turn allowed many employers not to pay workers a fair wage, especially considering the fact that many migrants granted refugee status in other European states had travelled to Malta to find work in a booming economy – despite the fact that they had no right to do so. 

“The migrant population is one that lives in poverty,” she said.

Camilleri added that while this did not justify theft or any other violation of the law, any solution needed to appreciate the very difficult conditions migrants faced on a daily basis.

Another issue raised by Camilleri was the fact that with prices for accommodation constantly increasing, many migrants were forced to seek accommodation in localities where rent was cheaper.

“The discussion should be about how people can live with dignity and be given the opportunity to build a life for themselves,” she continued. “Unless we are going to have affordable accommodation and the possibility for people to earn a wage that will allow them to live in dignity we are going to have more of these problems.”

Depression driving deviant behaviour – Marsa mayor

Marsa mayor Francis Debono insisted that Marsa had been the victim of a series of decisions that had negatively impacted the community.

Pointing to the opening of the Marsa power station and later the Marsa open centre for migrants, while the port city was more locals moving away, Debono said there were many dilapidated properties whose owners were desperate to monetize on. This, he said, resulted in properties being rented out to groups of migrants, which were not suitable to be lived in.

Moreover, he said that while there were comparatively more jobs in Malta than there were in other EU member states, this did not necessarily mean that all migrants could find employment, with many not having a fixed source of income. 

“The leads to depression and this then manifests itself in an outward manner,” he said.

Debono also flagged a lack of enforcement when it came to rental market, explaining that in many cases, rental contracts were not registered leading to very little oversight on the part of local authorities.

‘I was shocked that in this day and age someone could say this to me’

The committee also heard the experiences of a group of migrants representing the NGO Spark 15 – a youth refugee-led NGO – one of explained that migrants were marginalised and discriminated against in many corners of society. This, he said, meant many had no choice but to visit places like Marsa. “There must be a factor pushing or pulling people towards Marsa.”

He recounted how in 2015, he had gone to a bar in a particular locality to watch football match at the weekend.

“The owner of the bar told me: I have no problem with you and I am not racist, but my customers do not feel comfortable with you here,” he said. “I was shocked that in this day and age someone could say this to me.”

He too stressed that the problem went far beyond law enforcement in Marsa, and required broader changes to the way the country looked at migrants. The problem, he stressed, was also exacerbated by the fact that an already sceptical population was constantly being fed media reports the demonized black migrants.

Mohammed Hasan, also from Spark 15, said that stereotyping of migrants, and them being “isolated” in areas close to open centres had “ruined refugees’ reputation”.

Hasan stressed that as regards Marsa, there was a growing mental health problem that few people were discussing.

He said that despite being an IT graduate with experience as a developer, and despite having the desire to open up a business, he had so far not been given the opportunity to do so because he was a migrant.

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