Since 2002 the Maltese government has processed 11,500 refugees and economic migrants, a figure, it says, equating to about 1.7 million arriving in France, Italy or the UK. The tensions are palpable. Anti-immigrant daubings have sprung up amid the sandstone walls of Valletta, Malta's fortified 16th century capital; Africans say they frequently suffer racism, and a prominent Jesuit charity has been the victim of arson attacks for its outspoken support of migrants.
"There's an ugly xenophobia developing here and I think the government carries some responsibility for that," says Dr Neil Falzon, the local representative of the United Nations high commissioner for refugees. "It is selling the idea that Malta can't cope. The truth is it has to. There's already a settled African population on this island, they just live in a different reality to the rest of Maltese society. The government should be leading the process of integrating them with jobs, education and homes instead of taking part in this kind of national hysteria."
Criticism of Malta's detention policy is mounting. The island is the only EU nation to automatically detain all illegal migrants for a legal maximum of 18 months: there are currently 2,000 in ramshackle camps. The UNHCR has voiced concerns over whether the policy could violate the Geneva Convention, while other NGOs are urging Malta's government to soften its attitude to migrants.
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Malta: where hysteria is no answer to the plight of refugees
Aidan Jones in Valletta The Guardian, Tuesday 30 December 2008