This is the second article of our series “A Journey to the Walls of Europe” about migration in the Mediterranean Region.
During our first days in Malta we encountered different forms of racism. In our article This is not Africa! You have to obey us! we raised questions about the causes for discrimination and xenophobia. Following on from this we decided to look for answers among the Maltese people.
Qawra is a small city located in the North-East of Malta. Most of the seafront is crowded with tourists who spend their “all-inclusive holidays” between the swimming pool and the buffet. But there are also some calm spots that function as a getaway for Maltese people spending their weekends on the beach.
Trying to find out more about the perception of migrants in Maltese society, we spoke to some Maltese students who told us about their experiences with migrants. They were enjoying a beer in front of one of the many sea front apartments often used by the Maltese as a retreat during summertime, or as storage rooms by local fishermen. Coming from a variety of different academic disciplines such as philosophy, arts, media, and law, they were interested in our questions and we experienced Maltese hospitality as they invited us to join them for a cold drink. After we told them of our interest in getting a better picture about the situation of refugees from Africa, which we had heard were mainly coming from Nigeria and Somalia, as well as their social status in Maltese society, they agreed to combine their beers with a dynamic group interview about immigration and the Maltese challenges in a European context.
Refugees, Malta and the European Union
Every month thousands of refugees are risking their lives, trying to reach Europe by boat. Many of them never reach their destination. On October 12, only a week after at least 319 people lost their lives in the waves, another boat with possibly around 500 people on board sank not far from the coast of Malta. While around 56 refugees were handed over to the Italian authorities, the Maltese Maritime Squadron (as a small island Malta does not have a coast guard) brought 150 of them back to Malta.
Primarily we asked their opinion on Maltese policy-making concerning the refugee situation. The students repeatedly argued that Malta simply does not have enough space to accommodate such a high number of refugees. This is a highly controversial argument to base any further opinion on, especially when breaking out of a Malthusian line of argumentation or arguments regarding space, the actual numbers need to be examined closer.
In general, there has been a high influx of refugees from Africa trying to enter the European Union (EU) by boat during the last years. In 2012 1890 individuals arrived by boat, out of which 65% came from Somalia. This has resulted in an official policy to urge the EU to take action in order to control the “refugee problem” on the European shores.
For one of the students that includes emphasizing the common element in challenges concerning the EU. She stressed, “the Maltese government does not feel the EU caring enough about its challenges”. A deeper frustration was articulated by one of her friends who quoted the government, saying that refugees coming by boat should be pushed back to Africa. He added, “the EU is presented as a common enemy by Maltese society” because they are portrayed as not helping enough.
“The situation nevertheless improved during the last years because something like a refugee regime was established” and a framework such as this did not exist before. In this regard the students referred to the European Border Protection Agency FRONTEX (Frontières extérieures) as a positive development because “it takes care of the refugee status in a legal framework and creates a standard”. While “the refugees never actually wanted to stay in Malta” but want to move on to other European countries (especially to Italy), “Malta‘s role nevertheless was that of a entry point to Europe”.
Racism in Malta: Uncommon and Unseen
When we told the students about the racism that we had encountered the day before one student stressed, “open racism actually is very uncommon in the Maltese society”. One of her friend’s added, “Malta is generally a very diverse society because it has so many different influences from the outside. There is a lot of everything”. Another of the students related this low-intensity racism that seems to be present in the Maltese public opinion to the fact that “black people were simply not very common on the streets“ which triggered a peculiar “culture shock“, especially for older people. Due to this lack of openness for cultural change it is very hard for refugees it is very hard to become socially accepted in society. The few refugees that are actually granted permission to work “have jobs unseen by the public, like dishwashers or street cleaners”.
On top of that, the role of the Catholic Church in Malta was heavily criticized for being largely responsible for the common conservative sentiment in society. One can find 365 churches in Malta – “one for each day of the year” – as the students put it ironically. This shows what important status the church still has in everyday life, even though the influence is slowly decreasing. Malta is dictated by the church but if the church would actually stick to what it preaches itself, it could accommodate refugees in one of the 356 churches as an act of charity”. The central role of the church can also be found in other aspects of daily life. Homosexuality for example was illegal until the beginning of the 1990s. Divorce was only possible from two years ago too. That makes visible how much power the Catholic Church actually has in society, stemming from a traditional connection between state and church.
“I don’t feel European”
For the student group the Maltese immigration challenges cannot be solved alone. They make clear that the European Union needs to take action because Malta cannot cope with these challenges on its own. Nevertheless they also touched upon the important issue of the situation in the countries of the refugees’ origins: Generally the long term goal for the European Union should be to “improve the situation in the refugees’ home countries out of moral reasons that relate to the history of European involvement in Africa and not so much out of humanitarian reasons.”
The frustration as pertaining to the European Union clearly stems from the European incapacity to handle the situation during the last years. For the students, the European Union clearly did not meet the immigration challenges. It is important to note however, that in 2008 Malta has approved the Lisbon treaty by a largest majority among any of the Union’s member states. One student boldly added that she doesn’t feel European at all: “I feel Maltese”.
The next article in our new series “A Journey to the Walls of Europe” will be dealing with the operative dimensions (Maltese Maritime Squadron) of the migration across the Mediterranean in open water.