The tragedy of those trapped in Malta

With so much heartbreaking media coverage recently about the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe (and also in the Middle East and Australia), I felt compelled to share an article I wrote in November of 2007 while working as a reporter on board Peace Boat. One port of call on our global voyage was Malta where I spent some time at a detention center. Here,  male African migrants were trapped with no way to go forward to Europe, as intended, and no way to return back to their home countries. Read on for the full story.

Participants presented Father Mintoff, founder of Peace Laboratory, with a banner that states: “We Can Save the World, We Can Change the Situation.”

Participants presented Father Mintoff, founder of Peace Laboratory, with a banner that states: “We Can Save the World, We Can Change the Situation.”

The issue of African migrants in Malta is a relatively new phenomena, occurring in the past five years as a consequence of ongoing war, famine and poverty in many African nations. The migrants arrive in Malta due to unfortunate circumstances, such as their boat breaking while making the incredibly risky journey to mainland Europe. They are placed in detention and their long held dreams of reaching Europe and starting a new life are shattered. This was the side of Malta Peace Boat participants experienced.

 

The Marsa Open Center, which gives basic needs such as food and shelter to the many migrants who risk their lives trying to get from Africa to Europe

The Marsa Open Center, which gives basic needs such as food and shelter to the many migrants who risk their lives trying to get from Africa to Europe

Generally speaking, there are high levels of racism and xenophobia in Malta directed at the migrants. This is exacerbated by the fact that the migrants do not want to be there either, as they are pinning their hopes on joining an established African community in another European country such as the Netherlands. Moreover, the migrants who come from a range of African nations, especially Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Algeria, and Egypt are held as scapegoats and many of the country’s ills are blamed on them. According to Mr Scicluna: ‘They’re not coming to take jobs, or overturn the culture. They are here because of desperate circumstances. The population of Malta is 400,000. We need 500 laborers each year as predicted by economists, so the presence of the immigrants is actually helping the economy.’

Under the guidance of Emanuel Scicluna, a volunteer from Peace Laboratory, a Maltese non-government organization situated in the town of Hal Far, participants visited the NGO which offers material and emotional support to the migrants. In the past, the center has also campaigned on their behalf to raise awareness about their situation and has been instrumental in protecting their human and legal rights, especially considering the difficulty in determining their status as either migrants or refugees.

Migrants hang out in the Internet café at the Marsa Open Center

Migrants hang out in the Internet café at the Marsa Open Center

After a briefing on the current situation of the migrants arriving in Malta and the fate that awaits them, participants went to see for themselves what life is like for them. After spending 18 months in a detention center upon arrival, the migrants are then placed in an open center which gives them more freedom. The Marsa Open Center is home for 750 men aged between 18 and 34 and provides basic needs such as food and shelter. For the past three years, it has been run by Terry Gosden, who hails from England.

The mosque at the Open Center which accommodates the many Muslims staying there

The mosque at the Open Center which accommodates the many Muslims staying there

In a small room that acts as a classroom with a dozen desks and a whiteboard, Mr Gosden explained the situation of the migrants. Only about one quarter of people fleeing Africa for Europe make it and in 2006, there were at least 1000 known deaths in the Mediterranean. His colleagues, who include Somali and Eritrean members, devised a system that gives the migrants a sense of purpose while they are in this ‘limbo’ phase. The center has been constructed into a village of sorts, with restaurants, shops, a mosque, a church, a school, a barber’s, and an Internet café, all run by the migrants themselves. ‘These people have suffered. They have nothing, so we give them something so that they have a stake-hold over their lives,’ Mr Gosden said. ‘What surprises me the most is the amount of dignity and self-respect these people are able to maintain under difficult circumstances,’ he added.

Mr Gosden, along with some of his staff, tells participants about how the center is run and the major problems faced by the men such as mental health issues

Mr Gosden, along with some of his staff, tells participants about how the center is run and the major problems faced by the men such as mental health issues

The most outstanding problem faced in the center is mental health. ‘Where we work hardest is on the mind. Everybody here has suffered. They experience grief, post-traumatic stress syndrome, and loss of culture. They are stuck on an island that doesn’t want them. However, they are grateful to Malta because they are still alive,’ explained Mr Gosden. Because of the huge stigma regarding mental health in many African nations, he is not asked to intervene until it becomes a matter of life and death. While being released from the detention center into the open center means more freedom for the men, they are still trapped. ‘The mythology they grew up with is broken. Their dreams are shattered. There’s no way forward and no way back.’ As our time at the center came to a close, Mr Gosden left participants with a final

Dr Namdi discussed the political context in which Africans are forced to flee their own countries and migrate elsewhere. He also talked about how African migrants are treated in Malta

Dr Namdi discussed the political context in which Africans are forced to flee their own countries and migrate elsewhere. He also talked about how African migrants are treated in Malta

thought: ‘You’re on a journey of discovery. For these people, their journey is one of life and death and is much more poignant. They’re leaving behind their culture and their life. When you return to your country of origin, send a prayer to the people making these journeys. I thank you for that.’

Back at Peace Lab, participants listened to a talk by Dr Namdi, a Nigerian cardiologist who has lived in Malta for twenty five years. As a fellow African, he tries to improve the lives of those migrants arriving in Malta. Dr Namdi discussed how war and infighting has displaced many people both within and outside their own countries. ‘The problems of refugees have been created by the policies of European countries because they still have a colonialist mentality and want to obtain precious resources such as oil, minerals and diamonds,’ he claimed. It is near impossible for the migrants to make a life in Malta, as, believes Dr Namdi, ‘no opportunities are created for such a life to flourish. The Maltese government ignores or hides the problem.’ In the discussion that followed his talk, most participants agreed that the problem should be addressed by developed nations who should take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Many also believed that the fact that Japan only accepts a very small number of refugees each year needs to be readdressed. At the very least, participants promised they would raise awareness of the plight of the African migrants in Malta when they returned home.

 

My new spirit animal

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

Stolen from: Brant Ward/The San Francisco Chronicle/Corbis

So it turns out falling down the Internet rabbit hole does have some benefits. I found this extraordinary man whose accomplishments are rather amazing, especially given that he is sans one forearm and two lower legs. Dr. BJ Miller is the executive director the the intriguing Zen Hospice Project, a residential facility for dying patients in San Francisco that aims to offer a human-centered model of care. His credentials are pretty stellar: a BA in art history from Princeton, then an MD which led him to become the chief resident at the hospital he worked in, followed by a fellowship at Harvard Medical School. Not too shabby.

He was in his second year at Princeton when he and some friends were fooling around after a party – he climbed on top of a parked shuttle train. He was severely electrocuted and almost died. He spent several months recovering and miraculously found a new lease on life. He doesn’t regret all that happened as he believes it turned him towards his calling as a palliative care physician and made him grow as a person. As he told one interviewer:“The gift was that it got me out of the habit of thinking about the future and comparing myself to others. It rammed me into the present moment. I’m actually grateful for that. I found a new confidence.”

It’s all about perspective. Miller’s mother suffered from the effects of childhood polio so he grew up surrounded by disability and saw that one could still live a normal life – even thrive. He didn’t let the suicide of his sister throw him into the depths of despair while at medical school. He sued Princeton over his accident and settled for $5 million dollars. Oh and he also owns a farm and part-owns a tea company. Now I’m going to leave my pity party, NOT ruminate on how lazy I am and instead meditate on the unbreakable human spirit.