Open and Shut

The uncertain fate of Malta’s migrant population

A mural in front of the Marsa bus stop, where a detention centre for immigrants was located. Giacomo Sini

At the dive bar in front of the screening centre for migrants in Marsa, a town in southeastern Malta, time passes by slowly. To kill time, one plays dominoes or billiards, or tries to catch a glimpse of the open sea beyond the rusty ships docked at the harbour. Everything here, whether the languages people speak or the spicy scent of the meat on the grill or the warm and dry wind, is reminiscent of Africa. Yet, Malta plays its role as a southern portal to Fortress Europe.

Thousands of refugees have made their way to this island nation over the years and found themselves confined here, awaiting a tenuous future. Their exact number is unknown even to humanitarian organisations that support asylum-seekers. Among these organisations, one of the most active is Kopin, a local NGO that seeks to promote a “sustainable reception” and a meeting point between locals and migrants, through education and training projects.

William Grech, Kopin’s executive director, and Dominik Kalweit, Grech’s deputy, explained to us, when we met in June 2019, that anyone who arrives illegally in Malta is taken to the screening centre. They remain there for a maximum of 15 days, during which they are identified, registered and assessed for health and psychological care. Before 2015, all illegal migrants would be automatically detained, but an overhaul of the immigration policy that year changed this. However, migrants without identification documents, or with outdated visas, can still be detained indefinitely.

Most migrants are housed in “open centres,” of which there are five on the island, and given a minimum income, without being guaranteed food or other services. They are allowed to leave these overcrowded open centres for school or work, but if they decide to move out, they are rarely allowed back in.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there were 1,445 arrivals by sea in 2018 alone. The migrants were mostly from Sudan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Eritrea, Syria and Libya. However, NGO workers told us, there are a growing number of arrivals from Italy—refugees moving to look for work, or leaving Italy in the face of growing hostility from Matteo Salvini’s Lega, which was part of the coalition government in Italy until August 2019.

A Tuareg migrant from Libya, who had moved to Malta a few months before from the Sicilian city of Catania, told us on condition of anonymity that he had worked as an electrician in Italy. After the reception centre he was living in was shut down, earlier in June, he had nowhere to go. However, the situation in Malta was not what he expected—there were no jobs to be found here, so he wanted to go back. But, despite having an Italian residence permit, he was being prevented by Maltese authorities from returning. We asked him about the situation in his home country, which has seen civil war and anarchy since the 2011 ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. “In Libya, people have completely lost their minds,” he said. “Over there, guys like me are killed like flies. The rest of my family has preferred to flee to Nigeria.”

In Ħal Far, a desolate industrial area near a former British air-force hangar, there are two open centres, one of which is reserved for families. The main centre consists of a row of white containers placed on top of one another, each housing at least seven or eight people. Despite its name, the open centre is closed to journalists and NGOs. A former detention building nearby had been bought by a private individual, who was renting out rooms for a hundred euros a month.

On 6 April 2019, Lassana Cisse, a 42-year-old Ivorian resident of the Ħal Far open centre, was shot dead on the road to the seaside town of Birżebbuġa. Two other migrants, from Guinea and Gambia, were injured in a separate shooting the same day. Lorin Scicluna and Francesco Fenech, soldiers from a nearby military base, were arrested the following month for the hate crimes. Cisse’s killing is believed to be Malta’s first racially motivated murder. After residents of Ħal Far rioted following an argument between a resident and the centre’s security guards, on 20 October, the Times of Malta noted an outpouring of anti-migrant hate speech on social media.

The far-right party Imperium Europa did not win any seats in the European parliament during the May 2019 election, but its vote share has grown almost fivefold since its establishment, in 2000. Neil Falzon, the director of the human-rights NGO Aditus Foundation, told us that hostility towards migrants in the country is the result of the island’s dense population, as well as the fear of a Muslim invasion that would threaten Malta’s Catholic identity—even though most of the migrants from Africa are Christian. “Immigrants are immediately locked up in identification centres, and immediately perceived negatively—by the surrounding society, by the media, and by politics—as carriers of disease and as Islamic invaders, so that they themselves end up self-excluding and marginalising,” Ahmed Bugre, a Sudanese migrant and founder of the Foundation for Shelter and Support for Migrants, said.

The Catholic Church itself, however, has worked in concert with NGOs to support the migrants. Also located at the Ħal Far airfield are the headquarters of the John XXIII Peace Lab. The NGO, founded in 1971 by the Franciscan friar Dionysius Mintoff, runs a sanctuary that houses and feeds around fifty asylum-seekers. “It is only a drop in the ocean,” Mintoff told us. The site also has an information centre and café, run by a group of local residents called Ħal Far Outreach, which provides news and linguistic support to the migrants living nearby. It also wants to start a children’s library.

Sudanese youth play dominoes at a bar near the open centre at Hal Far. As an entry point for immigrants, Malta plays its role as a southern portal for Fortress Europe. Giacomo Sini

Another priest, Alfred Vella, runs the Malta Emigrants Commission, a charitable organisation that was founded in 1950 to assist Maltese citizens travelling abroad, but now works to support “all those on the move,” regardless of religion or ethnicity. Vella told us that the biggest challenge is the high cost of living, and the low wages paid to illegal migrants. Around Marsa and Ħal Far, he said, vans pick up migrants to work at construction sites for new homes and luxury hotels. Malta has seen a construction boom fuelled by real-estate speculation, which has sparked a national debate due to the issues of collapsing new buildings, vacant houses and air quality. Migrant workers are not compensated for accidents, and bear their own medical costs.

“Migrants who arrive mainly from Italy are an opportunity for local entrepreneurs, because they can be exploited as cheap labour,” Kalweit told us. “Often, some people arrive in Malta as victims of human trafficking, brought here by force from shady work agencies in their countries of origin with fictitious promises. The builders have a strong influence on the political decisions of both local parties”—the centre-left Labour Party and the right-wing Nationalist Party—“because they believe that what Malta needs is to encourage tourism and the arrival of cruise ships. But this unsustainable economic boom has not brought more money for essential services, such as health and education, let alone improving the system of reception for migrants.”

Looking at the blazing containers of the Ħal Far open centre, Ali, a Somali refugee who had fled the militant group Al-Shabaab, said, “Instead of locking up people inside the centres, Europe should offer them an education, because many of them have great abilities. You can find doctors there, and computer scientists who, in a more peaceful future, would return to Africa to improve their countries.”

“Education is the key to integration,” a Sudanese migrant told us. “But in a closed and monocultural society like the Maltese, access to it for those who are migrants is strongly discouraged.”

Giacomo Sini is a photojournalist based in Livorno. He is primarily interested in the stories of refugees from conflict regions. His work has been published in several international publications, including Vice, National Geographic, the New Internationalist, Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel and El País.
Francesco M Bassano is a freelance writer based in Livorno. He writes about migration, marginalised groups and diaspora identities. He has written for several international publications, including El País, Il Manifesto, Neues Deutschland and Kansan Uutiset.