This article is the first in our series “A Journey to the Walls of Europe” about migration in the Mediterranean Region.
We have just checked in at our hotel in Malta to participate in a conference with the promising title “Creating Change 2013”, funded by the European Union. From the window of our hotel room we are overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Between the water and our balcony are a few karaoke bars. As we arrive on two different flights we talk about two sets of experiences during our first few hours on the island.
There is one common denominator: All three of us have witnessed forms of discrimination and racism as described in the following two situations:
I had just arrived at the international airport in the Maltese capital Valletta. I was traveling across the small island on a local bus. It had been a long overnight journey and I felt quite happy to have finally reached my destination. As the bus driver put on some classical music there was a happy atmosphere on the full bus as the sun slowly disappeared below the horizon. People were hopping on and off the bus as we slowly made our way from village to village.
As the bus stopped at one of the stations two dark-skinned men wanted to get on the bus. Each of them was holding a drink in his hands. Both cups were completely closed by a cover. When they wanted to get on the bus, the driver told them that they were not allowed to bring their drinks with them. They both calmly but firmly pointed out that people bring food and drinks on buses all the time and that bus drivers usually allow that, a fact that I can confirm as I had observed some other passengers entering with drinks in their hands just a couple of minutes previously.
The fact that the two men dared to argue caused an angry reaction from the driver who shouted at them, “This is not Africa! You are in Europe here and you have to obey us!” In this heated situation I admired the calmness of the two men. Both threw away their drinks and walked onto the bus. As they passed by the driver one of them remarked, “You know what you are doing is completely racist.
As they went to take their seats the bus driver got on his feet shouting that they had to get off the bus immediately. They both said, this time with a louder and more upset voice, that they were not willing to leave their seats. When the bus driver repeated his order a second time, he threatened to call the police. At that point I had seen enough and decided to get on my feet and raise my voice, asking the bus driver on what basis he wanted to kick the two gentlemen off the bus. Looking at me angrily he repeated what he had said before, “This is not Africa and I order them to get off the bus immediately.”
Speechless over such extreme racism I tried to establish eye contact with other passengers. However, the response I got was contrary to what I had expected. Five elderly people encouraged the driver and the vast majority of the passengers were absolutely silent with nobody else speaking in support of the two men.
Finally, after five minutes of heated discussion, we continued our journey with the two men staying on the bus. The classical music continued playing but now every tune caused a deep feeling of dissonance within me. For the rest of the journey, till our arrival in the city of Qawra, I kept asking myself how it was possible that in an entire bus full of people were either in favor or at least silently tolerating such an act of discrimination.
While this first encounter illustrates open racism, the second example is more subtle. However, it sheds light on the tensions in Maltese society created by the refugee situation in the Mediterranean region.
We were spending our first night in Malta strolling around Qawra, encountering a few locals, as well as English people resident in Malta. We were trying to get a feeling for the new environment, what people are bothered by and what they talk about. The Maltese are very hospitable and friendly and it´s easy to get chatting with them.
There was one story about black people in Malta that stuck in my head. Apparently there is an assumption that every person with dark skin is either a Somalian or Nigerian refugee with criminal intentions. We wondered why only these two nations were mentioned and came to realize that these are the two nationalities which dominate the public perception of African refugees in Malta. It seems that the image of refugees is stereotyped and criminalized. The Maltese describe their country as a very safe place, but clearly see that safety threatened by people with dark skin. Pickpocketing, stealing in bars and other minor criminal conduct were described to us as a problem associated only with black people. They seem to serve as a scapegoat for negative issues in Maltese society. For us, that raised questions about Malta´s role as an outpost of Fortress Europe.
The landing of refugees from Africa is a fairly big issue in the European Union these days. Recently the death of hundreds of refugees in Lampedusa has brought the issue to the fore in the European media. Still fairly uncovered by the mass media however is the role of Malta in the discourse of European immigration. Refugees are also landing in Malta and this small island has to deal with this challenge too, as illustrated by the stories above.
For the rest of the evening we were discussing the reasons for the racism we had encountered during the first hours after our arrival. As we are going to spend one week on this island we decided to investigate further how the topic of migration is dealt with by Maltese society? While the situation in Malta is in some ways similar to Lampedusa the challenge to cope with refugees is surely a common European task. How do the people of Malta perceive European policies in this regard?
To address these questions we will publish a number of articles in our new series “A Journey to the Walls of Europe”.