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.

 

Then & Now

thailand1It was almost on a whim that I decided to go on vacation to Thailand – an ‘ahhhh fuck it, I need a holiday!’ moment. A ‘I need to get the hell outta of Korea for a bit’ moment. So I pulled out my credit card and a few weeks later, found myself lying on a quiet beach on an island, Koh Pha Ngan in the south of the country. Even the weeks leading up to the trip made the whole thing worth it. It gave me something to look forward to and something other than my usual monotonous day-to-day life to think about.

I had been to Thailand before. Six years ago I was there for almost a month. It was a great trip – the first such trip I had taken alone in Asia and it was a desperately needed time of healing as I came out of a horrible year – my first in Korea and one that I always try to erase from my memory.

That trip was one of those rare times when the stars seem to align and things become serendipitous. I arrived with no set plans and just traveled around alone. I felt happy and present for the first time in god knows how long. I made my way down to beautiful Ko Phi Phi island for a few days. One day, in between snorkeling and attending random muslim weddings, as I was escaping from the heat in my swanky hotel room with turbo air conditioning, I began to channel surf. A documentary on one of the national channels caught my eye. I became intrigued – it was about a German expat and his Thai wife who started an organisation (Baan Gerda), similar to an orphanage, for children and adults that have been abandoned and stigmatized because of being infected with HIV/AIDS. I was moved by what I saw, so in an uncharacteristic moment of boldness, I contacted the founder, Karl, and soon enough, I was at their beautiful house in a quiet suburb of Bangkok and then we were on the road in their SUV and drove for three hours deep into the rice fields of the Thai countryside. I spent two days and one night there just hanging out, playing with the children and talking with Karl who explained to me all the complexities of the situation of the children, of the community, of the government. It was an extremely interesting and eye-opening experience.

Also, while I was there, an Australian woman showed up with a representative from her Thai publishing house to also learn about the work that was being done there. Just a week before, I had been looking at her memoir in a bookstore near one of the big temples in central Bangkok, wondering about who this crazy woman was – who dedicates their life to working for free in the ‘Bangkok Hilton’, one of the world’s most notorious prisons? Who does that?! And here she was, in the flesh. We spoke for a while and of course, promptly upon my return to Bangkok, I bought and read her story which was crazy, involving a criminal husband, smuggling people out of Burma and nearly bleeding to death.

And then, after riding elephants and hanging out with a tribe in the jungle, I came back to civilization, checked my email and found out I had been given an amazing opportunity to travel around the world as a reporter for Peace Boat. Those were exciting times.

Alas, this is now and my trip to Thailand this time was so different. This time, I had more of an agenda – I just want to chill out and be healthy. And with that in mind, I went to The Sanctuary, a really laid back kind of yoga resort/spa/camping ground/hippie-hipster playground for people on a budget. It’s hard to describe, but I first stumbled upon it online two or three years ago and thought, ‘Wow, that looks interesting! I want to go there!’ but then promptly talked myself out of it because that sabotaging voice in my head, which gets more say than it should, told me that it was too hard to get to, too expensive, and that it was morally bankrupt because how could I justify going somewhere like that where people pay to fast and cleanse when there are so many starving people in the world?

But this time, I decided to, in the spirit of Nike, ‘Just do it.’ And it was lovely. Although, knowing what I know now, I wish I had stayed longer (everybody says that). But I got what I needed and I know that it was important to take that time for myself because I’m about to get bat-shit busy with a six day work week and trying to keep up with everything else – I’ve never been good at juggling more than a few balls, so hopefully I can keep a piece of the Sanctuary within me to have a sense of balance and equanimity.

Thank god for antibiotics!

Thank god for antibiotics!

Ironically, however, as soon as I got back to Bangkok where I had planned to spend a few says doing girly things (sightseeing, shopping, spa etc), I was struck down with food poisoning. The universe certainly has a sense of humour – I was so healthy and relaxed and then boom! A day later I am writhing around on the bathroom floor of my hotel room, sweating, shivering, vomiting, trying to endure the incessant stabbing pains in my stomach, having no clue how to get to a doctor or hospital. Luckily, after some frantic searching, I found a pharmacy with a pharmacist that spoke English and that sold antibiotics. I had three days in the city, two were spent trying not to die alone in a hotel room and on the third day, finally I was able to get out and about a little bit.

I always had fond memories of the metropolis – I thought it’s shabbiness was charming. I thrived on its chaos and crowds. I loved the contrasts of the old temples and houses next to the giant modern malls. Now, however, I think Bangkok is too big, too dirty, too hot and too ugly. I was surprised that for such a tourist mecca, how few people spoke English, and how rude some people could be. Actually, I would probably be that way too if I was constantly dealing with snotty, privileged, high 22 year old European backpackers who demanded a fifty percent discount on everything. But anyway, Thailand you rule, Bangkok you suck!