Malta urged to set an integration strategy

With one of the highest rate of asylum seeker by capita, Malta has one of the worst integration policies in Europe. To avoid an alienation of the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers staying in Malta, many urge the new government to elaborate an integration strategy.

By Amel Semmache

In 2004, Shami Muhammad fled from Sudan to seek asylum in Malta. He now has a Sudanese restaurant in the capital, Valletta. “Malta is my country. I speak Maltese. I like Malta,” he says with certainty.

However, the integration process has not been easy for him and in his opinion, the government does not help the refugees enough. “They didn’t take the situation of refugees seriously,” he adds. “I feel Maltese, but when it comes to paperwork, I don’t feel Maltese.”

Shami, a Sudanese refugee who opened his restaurant in Valletta

Shami, a Sudanese refugee who opened his restaurant in Valletta – Photo by Amel Semmache

As one of the closest European countries to Africa, Malta has one of the highest rate of asylum seeker per capita with 4980 applications per million inhabitants compared to the EU average of 660. This wave of migration started in 2002 partly due to a strengthening of patrols close to Spain and a change of migration route.

This phenomenon is still ongoing as 1890 migrants and asylum seekers arrived by boat in 2012, 65% of them originating from Somalia and 24% from Eritrea.

This trend has now lasted more than 10 years, raising questions of the integration of these newcomers in Malta who might stay in the island until their older days.

An asylum seeker’s first impression of Malta: the detention

As thousands of other asylum seekers arriving on the Maltese shores without permission, the first thing that Shami encountered in Malta was the detention system. “At first it was difficult because we were in detention,” he says. “For 6 months, we knew nothing about Malta.”

The detention of asylum seekers with no entry permission for a period up to 18 months has been highly criticised by EU bodies and many NGOs as a violation of human rights.

On May 22nd, Amnesty International published its annual report on The State of the World’s Human Rights. It describes the conditions in detention as poor and overcrowded with a lack of privacy, insufficient access to sanitary and washing facilities, and poor recreation and leisure facilities.

Moreover, many denounce the harsh conditions of detention as an obstacle to integration. Asylum seekers might feel frustration of having to go through such a process and some will even experience a form of trauma.

Fabrizio Ellul, Public Information Associate at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Malta, explains that asylum seekers already experience hardship on their way to Malta. “They experience a series of really tough episodes, going through the boat for about 5 days,” he depicts. “And the first thing that they see is detention. I don’t think that it sends a nice message for integration.”

Why this barrier to integration?

Detractors of the detention policy often criticise the lack of justification for having such a system as checking migrants’ health and determining their protection or rejection status does not take such a long period of time.

Maria Pisani, researcher in international relations at the University of Malta condemns any kind of detention of asylum seekers. “In 2012, the percentage of people who got some form of protection was around 80%,” she explains. “It emphasises how unfair detention is. Why bother detaining them?”

Since 2002, this system has remained despite the critics. Some researchers and NGOs are asking for a compromise by reducing the maximum duration of detention to 6 months.

The Minister of Home Affairs and National Security, Emmanuel Mallia justifies the need of a detention policy for security reasons. “Detention is nether pursued to punish migrants nor to act as a deterrent,” he states. However, he does not exclude the revision of certain aspects of the policy in the future.

Behind its European neighbours

But the detention system is only one amongst many gaps in the Maltese integration policy. Indeed, a MIPEX (Migrant Integration Policy Index) report reveals Malta as having one of the worst integration policy in Europe, ranking at the 28th place out of 31.

One of the explications Maltese authorities give for the poor state of integration is the high rate of migrants in an already highly populated country. With a population density of 1300 inhabitants by square km, Malta is the most densely populated country of the EU.

Mario Guido Friggieri, Refugee Commissioner who takes care of the asylum determination, believes that Malta cannot supply help to integration for the increasing number of refugees and asylum seekers.

According to him, “whilst in the case of asylum determination the number can somehow be managed, in the case of reception and especially of integration, the big number is very difficult to manage.” “My office gives protection,” he adds. “Now, if this protection does not translate itself into inclusion or integration, it will not mean anything.”

Case study: Education and Language

Asylum seekers and migrants coming to Malta often bring their families with them. As their children go to Maltese schools, issues of integration are of a high importance in the context of education.

Walls in St Paul’s Bay primary school are decorated at the image of its cultural diversity - Photo by Amel Semmache

Walls in St Paul’s Bay primary school attest of its cultural diversity – Photo by Amel Semmache

The primary school of St Paul’s Bay has the highest percentage of foreign pupils in Malta with 31 different nationalities represented and over 300 foreign pupils out of 850. Josette Dalmas, Head of School, explains that the main issue that the school has to face is language.

“My greatest problem is that I have 65 pupils who have no idea of English,” she explains. “They come here, they don’t know English so we can’t communicate.”

English is an official language in Malta and most teachers are not trained to teach it as a foreign language. The government has sent a support teacher to her school but Dalmas thinks that it is not enough.

“The language support teacher who teaches English and Maltese has 111 pupils to cater for and she has another 90 on the waiting list,” she continues. “That’s a large number of pupils so we’re doing things superficially. We have to stop doing things for the sake of saying we’re giving support.” She asks for a structure to be set.

For Daniella Grech from Integra Foundation language and work are the key priorities for integration - Photo by Amel Semmache

For Daniella Grech, language and work are the key priorities for integration – Photo by Amel Semmache

Support for language is also crucial for adults’ integration. Daniella Grech, member of the association Integra helping refugees and asylum seekers to settle in Malta, thinks that the priority for the Maltese government is to provide more language lessons to them.

“When I talk to refugees, their priority is to find a job, but to find a job they need to speak the language,” she says. “And once they find a job, they can find accommodation outside the centres.”

Efforts being made

Since 2002, many agree on the improvement of the situation of refugees and asylum seekers in Malta and the increased efforts of the government. For instance, AWAS, the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers, helps asylum seekers to access information about programmes of integration on employment, housing and other social services.

Kathryn Baldacchino, Durable Solutions Associate at UNHCR Malta, highlights thi improvement. “There are government departments and offices who are really making great efforts,” she says. “It’s happening in a very ad hoc basis but it is happening.”

Watch: Kathryn Baldacchino talks about refugees and African culture on the radio show Connect Africa.

A need of coordination

However, no national integration strategy has been implemented yet. The initiatives that are being made in the government are not coordinated by any national policy and many think that they lose their potential.

Jean-Pierre Gauci, Director at The People for Change Foundation, an advocacy-based NGO working on migration issues, depicts a need for coordination between integration initiatives.
“I think that there is quite a bit being done,” he says. “But I don’t think there’s been any form of coordination between what has been done and a lot of it is lost. Not because it’s not happening but because it’s not been coordinated and it’s not being done well.”

According to him, many initiatives from ministries, NGOs, individuals are taking place to help asylum seekers and refugees and these could thus be coordinated by an integration strategy.

Urge for a national integration strategy

Many studies warn on the urgency to set an integration strategy. A study on the challenges of irregular immigration in Malta by the Today Public Policy Institute, an NGO working on public policy, alerts on the risk for the country to meet the same problems as other old immigration countries like France and Germany. Such problems could for be a risk of extreme social marginalisation in ghettos.

The wave of migration is now 11 years old and many think that Malta needs to find long term strategies to integrate its migrant population. The creation of such a strategy depends on the new government that has been formed following the general elections in March.

Watch: Refugees and migrants often face issues of discrimination when applying for jobs and accommodation.