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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.