An Organisation For The Integration And Welfare Of Asylum Seekers will soon be set up to facilitate the lives of the 1,600 immigrants accommodated in open centres.

For the past months, the Ministry for Social Solidarity has worked to create a network between its seven open centres in order to ensure a greater uniformity and more accountable policies.

The new organisation, based in Floriana, will ensure there is a more centralised system and, above all, will include a customer care centre to deal with the immigrants' specific questions and concerns.

Its overarching aim will be to ensure that immigrants' welfare was safeguarded, while helping them integrate better in society.

The ministry's policy advisor, Alex Tortell, said the organisation will also help legally residing people to understand their rights and obligations.

News of the organisation emerged during a national meeting on The Integration Of Third Country Nationals, hosted by SOS Malta as part of its EUNET Integration Network project, co-financed by the European Commission through the INTI programme fund.

Held at the St James Cavalier, Valletta, it was attended by invited government representatives, non-governmental organisations, and Church members, among others.

Foreign Minister Michael Frendo, who opened the debate, said the integration process had to be seen as an enriching experience rather than one of conflict.

While on the one hand migrants wanted to retain their identity, it was also crucial to recognise the host country's identity and create a strong sense of citizenship.

"We need to strike a balance for migrants to feel they belong without eradicating their identity," he said.

Dr Frendo added that foreigners integrating into another society also had to respect the traditions and culture of the host country.

Education played a very important role and was at the heart of the integration process. He stressed the need to be tolerant and understanding to these people who had been granted rights by international conventions recognised by Malta's Constitution.

Maria Pisani, from Integra Foundation, insisted that integration was impossible without dialogue and while everybody was speaking about rights, reality was not on a par.

"We need to listen, listen and listen some more to understand what problems these people are facing, while looking beyond our local phenomena. We need to see how migration fits into the concept of globalisation," she said.

Ms Pisani added that if detention was here to stay then the irregular immigrants had to be provided with education and information so that "when they emerge they will be less frustrated and more willing to integrate".

Andrè Callus, a member of Moviment Graffiti, who spoke from the floor, said that political discourse that highlighted words such as "illegality", only served to create a siege mentality.

"Some politicians have over-emphasised the problem and created a perception that the island is being invaded. However, immigrants make up about 0.4 per cent of the population. I believe there has to be more responsible discourse to aid integration," he said.

Meanwhile, Mario Friggieri, from Appogg, spoke about the Equal Project being run at the Hal Far open centre and the problems immigrants were facing when it came to finding a job. He said that while 62 per cent of the skilled immigrants usually landed a job, a mere 31 per cent of those who were educated or qualified found work. Females also found it difficult, and others felt exploited, discriminated against and made to work hard.

Mr Friggieri said that freedom from detention was not enough and society had to start thinking about living together on the same level as human beings - both sides had a responsibility to be successful.

Katrine Camilleri, from the Jesuit Refugee Service, noted that Malta has been a "bus stop-like transit country" for many years but that migrants were now increasingly having to settle in Malta whether they liked it or not.

In this regard Malta had obligations for equal treatment under EU law and it was a positive challenge for Malta to develop into a truly inclusive society, Dr Camilleri said.

The experience of a third country national Tim Peco, a 27-year-old hailing from Albania, has been in Malta for 14 years and has attended school and university, before going on to lecture at the Malta College of Arts, Science and Technology.

A qualified engineer, he has worked hard to integrate: He has mastered the Maltese language, taken part in the Life Cycle Challenge and proudly flies the Maltese flag.

Despite his efforts, Mr Peco remains without Maltese citizenship and his application filed last year remains pending. Though people are eligible to apply after five years of living on the island, it remains at the government's discretion whether to issue citizenship or not. Not having obtained Maltese citizenship yet, Mr Peco faced a number of uncertainties that led "to a state of limbo... if this still exists".

He cannot possess an engineering warrant without proving he is Maltese and trying to set up a company has proved to be hard due to the lack of security in the absence of citizenship. Getting a bank loan for a car or a house was practically impossible for him without first obtaining citizen status because bankers would ask for a pledge.

"Settlement and long-term decisions are difficult to undertake... I think of myself as a fully-integrated citizen of Malta," he told the national meeting yesterday.

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