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Strangers in our midst

It had been brewing for some time but the appearance in a Maltatoday survey of public concern over ‘foreigners’ in the country should not be taken lightly. This is not the old racism over migrants from North Africa, which also made it into the survey at 5.6 per cent. It is a concern about foreigners living, and generally working, in Malta.

Back in December, the European Union agency for the improvement of living and working conditions, Eurofound, reported that close to half the Maltese population felt there is tension between different racial and ethnic groups. Compared with data from previous years, the survey indicated increasing apprehension.

It is not that the country, in spite of being an island, is unused to foreign workers, more so since joining the EU. A recent position paper by the Malta Employers’ Association said that 18 per cent of the workforce consisted of foreigners, about 37,000. And that excludes illegal workers.

The MEA recognises that immigrant workers are necessary to sustain economic growth but called for a strategic plan to address the demographic challenges facing the country. Meanwhile, Jobsplus continues to talk of the need for thousands of more foreign workers.

In November, the Prime Minister again spoke of his plans to turn Malta into a cosmopolitan country and said there are things that cannot be achieved with just 400,000 Maltese. He stressed that foreign workers paid taxes, which, in turn, funded social benefits and healthcare. And then, rather crudely, he said: “They are paying a national insurance contribution but aren’t going to be here long enough to get a pension.” He made it sound like easy money, but immigration is not passport sales.

On Sunday, he sounded his concern over “racism”, although, in reality, it is xenophobia. He stressed the importance of foreign workers on the island, said incidents involved both Maltese and foreigners and noted that the solution lay with improved law enforcement.

The country is bedazzled by the economic progress achieved through, significantly, population growth itself but not enough concern is being given to the impact on Maltese society. Some areas are more affected than others.

The foreign workers are not homogenous. Western Europeans tend to integrate quietly, eastern Europeans have their own customs and identity and, of course, there are other immigrants from North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Some people are uncomfortable.

They blame the immigrants for the higher rents they have to pay and some feel their jobs are threatened by them. They do not buy into the idea that the island is turning cosmopolitan and, yes, racism is very strong in Malta.

The recent death of a 24-year-old Maltese youth in Paceville led to an outcry against a Bulgarian initially suspected of murder. It turned out the story was different from that being circulated. The Moviment Patrijotti Maltin held a protest but the low turnout showed that racism and xenophobia on the social media is a world apart from reality. But rumours do spread like wildfire and an unfounded outcry can easily get out of hand.

The us-and-them mentality is typical of an island nation. ‘Cosmopolitan’ is not a common word in people’s vocabulary. It is mindset and involves a radical change in how our society views the world.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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