No knowledge, no power: the fate of refugees in Gozo

With cost of living on the increase in Malta, more and more refugees are attempting to make a home in Gozo. But is the sister island’s infrastructure capable of ensuring their integration, TEODOR RELJIC asks?

Hodon is a single-mother with refugee status who moved to Gozo from Malta some months ago. When interviewed for the inaugural edition of UNHCR Malta’s magazine, she claims that the increasing cost of rent is what pushed her in this direction – a reality echoed by other migrants who spoke to the publication.

Not that the move – a ‘choice’ in only the most nominal sense of the word – is something that she regrets. “I am happy in Gozo. The people here are good. We have not been facing major problems as we were before in Malta,” she said.

But while this may be encouraging on the face of it, Hodon also hints at more deep-seated problems that refugees in general – and single-mother refugees in particular – face in Gozo.

“We want to work. We really need to work. And we want to get educated,” she says, pointing to the systemic lack of integration mechanisms on the island – of which the Head of Caritas Gozo, Michael Borg is fully aware.

“Families are leaving Malta because it is becoming increasingly expensive to live there. Even if people work, they find it more and more difficult to pay rent and support their families,” Borg said, adding that charity needs to be married to more practical long-term solutions in order for beneficial effects to be felt in the long-term across the entirety of Gozo’s social fabric.

“While charity is beautiful, we also need services that empower people. If we do not empower them, exploitation and unemployment will continue to grow. This will lead to idleness, drinking and violence. These are all signs of poverty and frustration,” Borg said.

A fragmented approach

In lieu of this, an outreach initiative by UNHCR Malta in collaboration with the Ministry for Gozo found that access to information and adequate training were among the most pressing concerns for the growing refugee population – with Somalis in particular being singled out as most vulnerable to these infrastructural gaps.

With the still-ongoing initiative having started in April 2016, the findings so far indicate that employment and education are the most urgent factors to be tackled if the integration of Gozo-based refugees is to be successful. This early assessment of the findings further specifies that, “a considerable number of refugees and migrants work casually and illegally in construction, agriculture, garbage collection, or as kitchen helpers,” and that they face further barriers through the lack of skill training and basic educational opportunities.

Many refugees have expressed a desire to learn English and Maltese, but no language classes palatable to migrants have been provided on the island so far. Similarly, while part-time courses at the Gozo branch of MCAST are open to migrants, these are given against payment, and the fees tend to be prohibitive to most refugees, rendering these skill-based courses all but inaccessible.

As such, UNHCR Malta believe that, “MCAST’s Skill Kit could provide much needed support for refugees in need of improving their basic language and other skills”.

Compounding the economic precariousness of the refugee population further are housing issues, with most refugees reporting a lack of awareness of the kind of support offered by the Housing Authority. And with rents expected to increase even in Gozo – according to the same report by UNHCR Malta – the fact that “many Gozitan landlords refuse to provide a legal rental agreement to refugees” becomes an even more acute problem.

Addressing the gaps

On the social front, UNHCR has found that there were very few activities that would encourage dialogue and cross-cultural exchange among the refugee population and local councils – with weakens the possibilities of either party being able to provide pro-active solutions to problems that might arise. The lack of social workers appointed to refugees in Gozo is also another factor that may contribute to their sense of alienation from the mainstream of Gozitan society.

“General lack of awareness and knowledge about refugees seems to give rise to misconceptions which in turn create barriers to social inclusion,” appears to be the overarching finding of the report, which was presented to Minister for Gozo Justyne Caruana in July 2017.

The report recommends that Gozo’s currently “fragmented” refugee support system be bolstered and made more cohesive through collaboration – in particular between the triumvirate of local  councils, authorities and refugees who by working together, “would be able to bridge some of the current challenges faced by both refugees and communities”.

However, the report also noted that no significant health issues exist among the Gozitan refugee community, and that while “until recently, refugees in Gozo received minimal support from Jobsplus,” the employment agency has pledged to open up its services to beneficiaries of refugee and subsidiary protection and temporary humanitarian protection in the coming year.

According to the report, in this way, “more people will benefit from assistance and gain better skills in areas such as CV writing, among others”.

Always in process, never at rest

What emerges powerfully in the same article on the UNHCR Magazine – penned by Sarah Mallia – is the basic plight of refugees being one of constant process and “flight”; that one is never allowed to be ‘at rest’. For example, a testimonial given by Hassan Yassin Ibrahim, a Somali refugee who was forced to flee his country at the age of 16, directly points to the detrimental effects of a faulty integration policy.

After being released from detention in Malta, Ibrahim traveled to Sweden, where he lived for two years, before being sent back to Malta, as per EU rules which bind asylum seekers and beneficiaries of protection to be transferred to the responsible Member State, such as the country of first entry or the country which has granted protection first.

“Refugees need support when they arrive or are transferred back to Malta. My friends who live here know very little about the Maltese people and culture,” Hassan, who has moved to Gozo on his return from Sweden, said. “Sometimes friends of mine throw litter in the street and I collect it after them. I was taught this in Sweden. They don’t know that it upsets people.”

In other words, having a ‘local’ integration policy would nip this kind of misunderstanding in the bud – a more efficient and welcoming solution than a back-and-forth trip to Sweden.

A fellow Somalian refugee interviewed for the feature also points to the frustrating state of flux that most of his number find themselves in.

“Even if we work and pay taxes in Malta, we will probably never receive a pension, or be granted citizenship. We cannot even dream about buying a house. There is no guarantee here. That is why many of us feel like we have not finished our journey,” Ahmed, a 23-year-old graphic designer, said. Lamenting the poor access to education on the island, Ahmed insists that the key to mutual understanding and communal betterment lies in communication.

“We need to organise meetings with the local communities and let them know who we are, and that we are here to help make their communities better,” Ahmed said.


MOVING FORWARD, the UNHCR magazine is out next week with MaltaToday on Sunday