The results of interesting, albeit limited, research studies aimed at exploring the interaction between the immigrant and Maltese communities, which had been carried out by the UNHCR and SOS Malta, were presented during a discussion meeting at Europe House, in Valletta, just days before the riots at Safi detention centre.

The research demonstrated that very few immigrants had developed any form of meaningful relationship with the Maltese community. Few immigrants or Maltese participated in intercultural or multicultural activities and very few of the immigrants interviewed had developed a meaningful relationship with a Maltese person although they wished to.

Moreover, most of the immigrants interviewed felt discriminated against at work because they argued they were doing jobs the Maltese did not want and were paid less for doing so. Most said they only got to know Maltese at work. About half of respondents had stable jobs with construction and manual labour being the most common among men and housekeeping in the case of the women.

Most Maltese preferred not to set up a business with an immigrant and they felt safer doing so with other Maltese or Europeans. Immigrants spoke about the need for better access to education. The vast majority of immigrants had never heard about the Housing Authority.

The main thrust of the research and the subsequent discussion meeting was to highlight that the Maltese and immigrant communities were not mingling and that there was therefore a need for the proper development of an integration policy, which would address such matters as employment, education, housing and similar issues in a holistic manner. With an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 immigrants now living in the community, mainly in the open centres at Marsa and Ħal Far and with friends and family in Valletta, Floriana, Msida and Gżira, the need to address such issues is, of course, evident.

It is widely accepted that Malta’s capacity to handle large-scale immigration of the levels experienced in the last decade is extremely limited. The size and density of the island does not allow it. The European Union accepts this and has promised its support in easing the burden on Malta. The United States and some individual countries in the EU have come forward with offers of positive support. The vast majority of the immigrants themselves would also wish to leave Malta for the richer economic pastures in Europe and elsewhere.

But the inescapable fact of the matter is that, regardless of how many immigrants eventually get resettled or repatriated, it is highly likely that there will always be a residue of immigrants who will settle in this tiny country. After nine years some are already putting down roots and, indeed, are contributing positively to the economy. Like immigrants throughout the ages everywhere, they are doing the jobs those born here do not any longer want to do.

It therefore behoves the government to ensure there are policies in place for the social inclusion and subsequent integration of those eligible for refugee status. Regrettably, “integration” has become a dirty word politically as both the government and the opposition pander to the concerns – invariably ill-informed and racially prejudiced – of some sections of the electorate. But politicians, and the Church, have a duty to give a lead on this issue.

The longer that proactive steps to develop policies in the fields of employment, education, housing and social security are postponed, the more difficult will be the consequences. It is in Malta’s long-term interests, socially as well as economically, to take action.