Migrants and asylum seekers must be given a seat at the table when political measures to lift them out of poverty are discussed, a YMCA case worker has said. 

Christian Inkum Okyere was speaking at a conference about poverty and social exclusion faced by migrants organised by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) and Aditus foundation. 

During the conference, researchers Julian Caruana and Alexia Ross presented their research highlighting how being at risk of poverty is all but a given for asylum seekers in Malta and the barriers they face in trying to better their position. 

In their recommendations, the researchers urged the governments to allow refugees to vote and stand for public office, as well as allow them to apply for jobs in the civil service. 

Inkum Okyere, who has a background in economics, detailed his experiences working with YMCA clients and said that a one-size-fits-all approach cannot work when trying to tackle the barriers that migrants face when trying to make a decent living for themselves in the country. 

“People should be able to create a sustainable income for themselves to live decently. If we want to have a serious look at what is preventing them from doing this we cannot generalise,” he said. 

One of the main barriers keeping migrants from putting down solid roots in the country was linked to the strong feeling that they do not belong and that they are not welcome, Inkum Okyere, continued. 

“There is a perception of Africans that they tend to send money back to their families who depend on them, however, this isn’t the whole story,” he said. 

“When they do not feel a sense of belonging the idea that they will one day return to their country is always in the back of their head. In order to not go back destitute, they invest in that idea and put their money into property in their country of origin.” 

However, if migrants felt more welcome and integrated into society they would be more enticed to invest locally and build a life around that.

He warned that increasingly, the rising cost of rent was impacting this possibility, even for migrants in steady jobs who work full time. 

“But if we are able to solve this problem for the people who want to live here, the mindset will change,” he said. 

Debt problems

Debt was another aspect that hangs around asylum seekers’ necks, Inkum Okyere continued. Those who made the crossing from Libya often took high-interest loans from loan sharks who squeezed them for every cent. When their documentation status changed and they were unable to work, and therefore make interest payments, things escalated and migrants were forced to live in a culture of fear where they may be threatened or have their family members kidnapped, further increasing their debt. 

Authorities must also understand that the psychological effect of a migrant’s journey is not something that is possible to simply overcome. They need to be given the tools to learn how to live with it and set boundaries with their families who have a different impression of European standards of living. 

Finally, Inkum Okyere stressed that the government should be prioritising leading asylum seekers towards dignified and safe employment as well as educational opportunities. 

Africans who learn a trade tend to do so through an apprenticeship which does not typically award them a certificate, he said. While in practice they did have the skills to hold a good job, the lack of certification kept them within the black market economy and precarious employment. 

Head of Research at Caritas Andre Bonello said that when calculating a budget for how much a person needs to live decently in Malta, most people are struggling to get by on a basic wage. 

COVID-19, he said had exposed a shocking reality of just how many people in Malta are struggling, with the organisation handing out over 1,000 hot meals every day at the height of the pandemic. 

“It was hell. I had basically stopped doing all of my work and every day from 5 am I was driving from supplier to supplier picking up food and spent my afternoons delivering meals to people,” he said. 

In light of the continually increasing cost of living, he urged authorities to talk to people and truly understand what it is they need to get by decently. 

Bonello recommended that the government set up a team of researchers to study poverty, that expired food is diverted to people in need instead of being thrown away and create better access to farmer’s markets, where food is both cheaper and healthier, and move away from only handing out high-salt canned foods and carbohydrates as part of food aid. 

“We need to think about this situation differently, we need to care about each other and we need to invest in education,” he said. 

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