In search of solidarity
During a recent visit to a detention centre, we spoke to a 10-year-old boy, Ahmed*, who arrived in Malta on his own just a few weeks ago. He left Somalia after his older brother was killed. After spending months in a detention centre in Libya he decided to join a group of fellow Somalis to venture out to sea on a large, inflatable dinghy. Smugglers clearly don’t differentiate; they exploit the young and the old. A few dramatic days later he found himself in Malta, after being rescued by a patrol boat of the Armed Forces of Malta.
His story is gruelling but it is also full of hope. As you are reading this, he is cautiously finding out what it is like living in one of Malta’s centres for separated children. Thankfully, he now has people around him who have his best interest in mind. English-speaking and street-wise, he now has a chance to make a new start. So far, he is blissfully unaware that his boat arrival in Malta was met with disdain by some.
Just another story to cater to “bleeding hearts”? Regardless, it is a true one.
Of course, Ahmed’s presence in Malta is not telling the whole story. More than 800 people have arrived by boat from Libya this year alone. And that is less than half the number that came here in 2011. The majority, but not all, qualified for protection status. Not an unmanageable situation but definitely a challenge for a small island-state.
Hence, Malta continues to look for support from other countries. And there have been important contributions by some European states that have joined our efforts by offering solutions for hundreds of people. Add this to the ongoing US resettlement process and you will find that the number of those who have been assisted to settle elsewhere is now close to 1,700 and counting. Many will say it is far from enough but the fact is that this level of support is quite unique in the EU context.
The current situation is characterised by clashing expectations. On the one hand, those who have been granted protection in this country have a basic right to expect fair treatment and a dignified living environment. Meanwhile, Malta rightly makes the argument that Europe needs to set up effective solidarity mechanisms that take into account the capacity of receiving countries.
The public, including in Malta, often argue that those who seek asylum should do so by crossing borders “legally”. But international law and the 1951 Refugee Convention is based on the expectation that states adhere to their legal obligation to provide access to a fair process for all those seeking asylum, regardless of the mode of entry, and without penalisation.
It is a paradox that today’s entry visa regimes leave most refugees without any possibility to cross borders legally.
Taking a step away from Malta and even out of Europe, what can be said about the situation of the more than 400,000 refugees who languish in the world’s biggest refugee camp in Kenya? Or the more than two million Afghans who fled to cross the borders into Pakistan and Iran?
Is there in fact real global solidarity to support the large majority of refugees who have lost their lifeline to their home countries but who remain in their regions of origin?
These are questions too big to even try to address on half a newspaper page but they are illustrative of the global challenge at hand.
So let’s go back to young Ahmed in Malta. He says he is searching for freedom. Hopefully he has found just that: arriving here will, no doubt, be a life-changing experience. He can finally start looking ahead rather than over his shoulder.
Today, June 20, is World Refugee Day. It is a time to pause and to take a step back from important but faceless debates on “burden sharing”. Today we simply recognise the resilience of Ahmed and millions of people like him around the world.
None of them chose to become refugees. They all deserve to be met with respect and solidarity.
The author is Malta representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.