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
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 However, migrants without identification documents, or with outdated visas, can still be detained indefinitely.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.

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.

Keywords: refugees migration Detentions Libya Sudan Bangladesh Italy racial violence African refugees Europe