‘They want to leave Malta at all costs’

Migrants and Maltese are caught in a vicious cycle of mistrust, says Dr Bugre. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Migrants and Maltese are caught in a vicious cycle of mistrust, says Dr Bugre. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

African migrants invariably look to Malta as a transit point and they resist leaving open centres because they see no future out there in Maltese society, Marsa Open Centre Director Ahmed Bugre tells Bertrand Borg.

To many, it is news worth celebrating. To others, it is an indictment of Malta’s multi-cultural credentials. “All the people registered at the Marsa open centre have applied to leave the island and get resettled elsewhere; 100 per cent. They want to leave Malta at all costs.”

Do people really want African migrants to remain in Malta? The answer is no

The words are Ahmed Bugre’s, the Ghanaian-Maltese coordinator of the Marsa open centre.

Last August, the open centre hit the headlines when it was announced that about 180 long-term residents had been handed an eviction notice, effectively informing them that their time at the centre was up.

Migrants’ resistance to leaving open centres stands in stark contrast to local and international criticism of the centres’ living conditions as severely overcrowded and unsanitary. A Council of Europe report described conditions at open centres as “clearly sub-standard” and said the Ħal Far tent village ought to be closed down.

The question begs itself: if conditions at open centres are so poor, why don’t residents want to leave and integrate into Maltese society?

According to Dr Bugre, Maltese citizens and African migrants are caught in a vicious cycle of mistrust.

“Do people really want African migrants to remain in Malta? The answer is ‘no’,” Dr Bugre said. “There is a national mindset that says ‘African migrants are here as temporary guests, and one day they must leave’.

“Of course migrants sense this. They come into the centres with the understanding that they do not have a long term future on the island and that their stay in Malta is a temporary one. They strive to find employment with the aim of supporting their immediate families back home, and wait for possible re-settlement or relocation in a third country.”

Dr Bugre estimated that at least 140 of the 180 residents handed their eviction notices had already left the island. “Most of them have headed for Scandinavian countries, to try their luck over there,” he said.

Migrants granted humanitarian or subsidiary protection – as is the case for all those evicted – have the right to a travel document allowing them to go overseas for a limited period of time.

Under the Dublin II system, if a migrant overstays and is apprehended by authorities, he or she is sent back to the country in which they first entered the EU.

In this case, that country is Malta. “It is likely that a good number of those who have left the island over the past weeks will eventually be caught and sent back here,” Dr Bugre sighed. “What do we do when they start returning?”

Malta’s asylum policy makes little provision for the integration of refugees or migrants into broader society. A 2011 study by the British Council and Migrant Policy Group ranked Malta 28 out of 31 European countries in terms of integration of migrants.

The policy has attracted a measure of criticism from human rights organisations and Alternattiva Demokratika but enjoys the support of both the major political parties.

The result, Dr Bugre said, is migrants who have been at open centres for up to seven years yet don’t speak a word of Maltese or English.

“They have no motivation to learn. They’re just hoping that one day they’ll be sent to mainland Europe or America.”

Since 2008, about 1000 migrants have been resettled in other countries, with over 600 accepted by the US. This May, European countries pledged to resettle a further 350. For the majority of migrants in Malta, resettlement remains a pipe-dream.

Although some skilled and educated migrants managed to settle, there were also exceptions. Dr Bugre cited the case of a migrant who was studying law at the University of Malta but decided to leave anyway.

“I told him that he was crazy, throwing away three years of studies. He looked at me and asked ‘If I stay here, can I ever become a Maltese citizen? Will I ever be able to bring my family over here?’ They are valid questions.”

Integration is also held back by migrants’ own reticence to speak up, Dr Bugre said. “There are migrant communities but everyone is afraid of becoming a leader and being a spokesperson, for fear of compromising their chances of getting resettled.

“The tendency is not to listen to migrants until they complain, but no migrant wants to get a reputation of being a trouble-maker.”

A 2010 report by the Jesuit Refugee Service had found that it was extremely difficult for migrants who moved out of centres or found gainful employment to re-enter the open centre system if they subsequently lost their source of income.

Migrants granted subsidiary or humanitarian protection are not eligible for unemployment benefits. As a result, migrants wanting to seek work and their own accomodation think twice before doing so. If they lose their job, they end up jobless, homeless and with no social safety net.

This problem, Dr Bugre said, had now been solved. “We have secured an unwritten exception which qualifies migrants who live outside the centre and can prove that they have lost their job with a ‘social benefit’ of €92 a week,” he said, although he stressed that the policy was not yet enshrined in law.

Other changes were also in the pipeline, Dr Bugre revealed. “We have suggested evolving the open centre concept and having a number of halfway houses, where four or five migrants share a house in the community.

“They could be assigned a social worker and given the responsibility to live their own lives, as they did before they came to Malta and grew dependent on open centres.”

In the meantime, migrants continue to live in open centres, on the margins of Maltese society. “If a migrant goes to America or Germany, there is a clear process to follow,” Dr Bugre said. “They are given orientation and language classes. They are told that after a set period of time they can apply for citizenship. But here, you are just waiting. Waiting until someone takes you away.”

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