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Island of Malta houses and supports asylum-seekers in ‘Open Centres’

27 September 2019

by Francesco Bassano and Giacomo Sini 


Said (centre), a Syrian refugee who created an association of Syrian exiles in Malta

Said (centre), a Syrian refugee who created an association of Syrian exiles in Malta

THE exact number of asylum-seekers in Malta is unknown, even to the humanitarian organisations that support them: some estimate that there are 5000, others say that there are more than 10,000.

In contrast with the years before 2015, detention is no longer immediate, but is reserved for those who have an expired visa, or are without documents. It can be extended for an indeterminate period, and residents face restrictive conditions and an absence of clear information.

The asylum-seekers, especially those who obtain asylum or find employment, are housed by the State in five “Open Centres” across the country, where they are provided with a minimum income. People are free to come and go, to school or work.

Near the Open Centre in Birzebbuga is the headquarters of Peace Lab, an organisation that has been active for 30 years, and is now run by an 89-year-old Franciscan friar, Fr Dionysius Mintoff, with the help of a young Kenyan student, Livingstone.

“The Pope is the only one in this century who really says something about refugees: he invites us to open convents, and, unfortunately, this has happened only a few times,” Fr Mintoff says.

Peace Lab’s small garden is home to about 50 asylum-seekers, who are also provided with food. Near by there is an information point in the mornings, and a café has been set up in a shack by a group of young people, where support is offered with languages, football tournaments, and books.

Mike tells us that he escaped from Gambia because he had fallen in love with the daughter of a powerful imam, and had had a child with her — a child he cannot reach even by phone. “Nobody would like to leave home. I loved my city, but, in Africa, you are not free to be yourself,” he says. “If you are of another religion, you have a different sexual orientation, or you have certain political ideas, you can risk death or life imprisonment.”

GIACOMO SINIMgr Alfred Vella is the director of the Malta Emigrants Commission: a charitable organisation originally established in 1950 to assist the Maltese who emigrated abroad, has expanded its field of action in recent years, and now helps “all those on the move” without any ethnic or religious distinction

Abdurrahman, a Tuareg from Libya, tells us: “In Libya, people have completely lost their minds. People like me are killed like flies; the rest of my family has preferred to flee to Nigeria.”

The UNHCR says that there were 1445 arrivals in Malta last year from Libya, sometimes after travelling from Sudan, Bangladesh, the Horn of Africa, or Syria. But the current trend, NGO operators say, is for young people to arrive having been subject to the refoulement policy and “closed ports” of the former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

The Malta Emigrants Commission, established in 1950 to assist Maltese who emigrated abroad, has expanded its field of action in recent years. The director, Mgr Alfred Vella, says that the main challenge is the high cost of living and rents, and that illegal work that has lowered wages. Near by, vans regularly collect migrants to work on the various sites that have been opened in recent years, as new homes and luxury hotels are constructed.

No protection is provided migrants who work on cranes or scaffolding, and hospital expenses for any accidents occurred are all borne by the worker.

“To local entrepreneurs, migrants who arrive mainly from Italy are an opportunity, because they can exploit them as cheap labour,” John, a Somali boy who recently returned from the hospital after an accident, tells us.

Volunteers at another local NGO, Kopin, say: “Often, some people arrive in Malta as victims of human trafficking, brought here by force from shady work agencies in their countries of origin with fictitious promises. The builders have a strong influence on the political decisions of both local parties, because they believe that what Malta needs is to encourage tourism and the arrival of cruise ships.

“But this unsustainable economic boom has not brought more money for the essential services, such as health and education, let alone improving the system of reception for migrants.”

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