Refugees and asylum seekers are a hot issue and one of the main challenges which Malta is currently facing. I became interested in this issue because the continent of Africa, its people and the different cultures always fascinated me. Usually the illegal migrants are victims of war and famine and other cases of disruption of their everyday lives. In refugee-hood, we encounter the ultimate extreme of dislocation of the individual from his cultural matrix. In Malta, the temporary nature of the refugees, who are expected to move on to settle in another country, is particularly evident.
In the field
From the outside, the Marsa Open Centre looks totally different than from the inside.
Through my experience of working with these people, I learned that humans are all the same, we all have feelings and emotions. I cannot fully understand how one can possibly have feelings of hatred and anger towards these human beings. I always wonder why most of us are behaving selfishly — after all, we passed through similar ordeals to make us want to migrate in the past.
At the open centre the management team were very nice and I felt welcomed in a warm way.They explained what the centre is, how it works, who the residents are and what they do. An administrator talked about the terrible psychological conditions in which these people arrive.
They are generally in a state of shock caused by the conflicts in their motherland and also after the horrible voyage they go through to reach certain countries like Malta. He also told me about the refugees experience in the closed detention centres of Hal-Far upon arrival in Malta. He stressed the point that the refugees “are not a charitable institution!” The centre provides refugees with lodging and other basic needs.
They are given assistance for self-organisation, encouraging them to take part in programmes where they are guided into the setting up of “ethnic restaurants” for the residents, organise sports events, and prayer groups.
What impressed me most was the sense of a united Africa, even though these people belong to different cultures and ethnicities coming from all over the African continent. A comment which stunned me was “We are all Africans. Africa is one land and there are no ethnic or racial boundaries between African countries”. This is a very positive attitude which I hardly expected.
I interviewed Walid an Eritrean, a teacher by profession, while he was in an Eritrean restaurant. I asked him about the differences between African countries such as food, language and religion.
He told me “We are all brothers, different food but all humans.” In spite of civil wars and tensions between Eritrea and Ethiopia, I noticed that migrants from these countries are very close and friendly to each other.
Somali Josef is a Muslim scholar. He told me that “according to the teachings of the Koran, religions should not influence the relationship between different individuals, because there is only one universal religion.
“There is little difference between Islam and Catholicism and it is not a problem”. However, from my observations I could notice that the Mosque is located near the Muslim settlements, such as Somali dwellings, while the Catholic Church is situated in another part of the centre, close to the Eritrean settlements. This is something logical because the majority of Somalis are Muslim, and the majority of Eritreans are Catholic. This church is frequented mainly by Ethiopians and Eritreans.
A ray of hope
Even though in Malta the refugees face problems when trying to interact within the society, there are local people who treat them with dignity, which every human being deserves.
Every now and again, several NGOs and voluntary organizations put up events at the centre. The refugees wait for such events as they are eager to interact and socialise with the Maltese people in order to be able to learn about them and vice versa.
I am amazed at the fact that refugees are joyful with the little they have. I am also surprised about how the centre is organised and how the refugees themselves divide the space and manage to live and survive in such a confined space.
There is an enormous diversity between the refugees. On one hand they try to maintain their traditional space between individuals of the same nationality and on the other hand they try to bond and share their space with all the other refugees and Maltese volunteers in order to learn and live a better life in this new reality away from their land. However, these people have to accept that they have to live in a half open centre.
When people talk about immigrants they take a ‘them and us’ attitude. Some say that they want them out of Malta at all costs. They perceive them as a threat. Well, Maltese people were migrants too and they were not always welcome in the countries they moved too.
The attitude of local people to people migrating from other countries was the same, only in those days it was Maltese migrants who bore the brunt of xenophobia and racism. From 1830 French expansion in North Africa meant that what was formerly a large region closed for centuries to Europeans was now wide open for immigrants. Thousands of Maltese settlers left the European shores of the Mediterranean for Algeria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Other minor settlements of Maltese emigrants were in Corfù, Constantinople, Smyrna, Gibraltar and Marseilles.
When the war ended Malta and the Maltese were physically and economically under a heavy stress. The Maltese islands were overpopulated and unemployment was very high. Between 1948 and 1973 a large number of Maltese paid the Australian Government ten pounds and sailed to Australia.
Maltese migrants in Australia in the 1920s were savagely discriminated against. The majority of the Maltese suffered hunger and despair although many of them were skilled artisans. Mr Gunn, the South Australian Premier of that time, regarded the Maltese as “uninvited immigrants” and refused to assist them to find employment.
Maltese migrants in North Africa faced severe problems with the rise of nationalism in these countries. Foreigners, such as the Maltese, with different cultures and religion were seen as outsiders.
Today it is African migrants, commonly called ‘boat people’ who are in the same boat as the Maltese of yesteryear. We cannot close an eye to this humanitarian crisis. Migrants leave Africa to seek food, employment´and safety/security.
Nobody likes to leave their family and country. We must all remember that hate speech does not make challenges disappear; it does not contribute to enhancing our understanding of the problem. Our forefathers left our country to seek a better quality of life. Can we expect others not to try and better their situation and do the same? We are all human beings, sharing the same world. We are all in the same boat!