Last week, this newspaper published a photo that showed a group of black people lugging suitcases down a country lane behind the Mrieħel showrooms. They had just been effectively evicted from the cowshed they called home, and were on the way to itinerant homelessness. A grim reversal of the nativity story, then, but that’s not my main point.
Nor is it that the photo is a grim rendition of the depressing wasteland that swathes of Malta have become. What was a lacework of well-tended fields not a generation ago is now a dust bowl of collapsed rubble walls, rubbish, construction waste, and haphazard party walls that have nothing to declare but their strips of waterproofing membrane.
On the face of it, a case of neighbours by chance. The glitzy showrooms, the wasteland that surrounds them, and the homeless Africans seem to rub shoulders as it happens, just as a cow might momentarily share a field with a passing train. Instead, it turns out they are closely connected.
The showrooms represent business and commerce. That so many of them have been built, so rapidly as to leave no time for their builders to bother about planning and party walls, is a result of the rate at which the economy is growing. Or maybe it’s the other way round, but no matter – the point is that more is more.
It seems easy to explain the presence of African migrants in Malta in terms of the economies they left behind. It is less comforting to explain the Maltese economy partly in terms of their presence in the country. Fact is, however, that African migrants are part of what makes that economy – they are economic migrants in more ways than one.
On the sweaty frontline of labour, they’re everywhere you look. They pick crops and lay out irrigation tubes in fields, man construction sites, heave deckchairs around on beaches, and collect household rubbish. They’re apparently not clever enough to be waiters, so they backroom the dirty dishes instead.
Migrants, and especially African migrants, tend to be condemned to exist just outside the perimeter of society
While none of this enjoys the exalted station of gaming and banking, it is an essential part of the diversified economy. Most people in Malta are neither bankers nor gamers anyway. They may be builders, tile layers or beach kiosk owners – all sectors in which thousands of Africans are employed. Still, nothing new there: the point has been made to meaninglessness that African (among other) migrants contribute to the economy.
The problem is that we think of them as contributing as outsiders, to something they don’t properly belong to. Migrants, and especially African migrants, tend to be condemned to exist just outside the perimeter of society.
Which is where the wasteland comes in. All too often, development in Malta is barnacled. It takes place without a care to what happens beyond the parking lot. That is why showrooms, industrial areas, residential and recreational developments even, are invariably orbited by swirls of rubble and rubbish.
A perfect mirror image of the situation with African migrants, then. They are an important part of the economy, but they are also pushed to the wastelands on the edges – socially and, now we know, physically. The location of that cowshed was really no coincidence.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider the rather muted public response to what happened at Mrieħel. Had the people involved been Maltese, the dead kitten wouldn’t even have made the news. Rightly so, too: a hundred people living in the kind of squalor we would like to think was buried with the Mandraġġ 70 years ago, a few paces away from the air-conditioned rows of plasma screens, would have been hard to stomach. Especially since the result of last Sunday’s raid is a hundred people sleeping rough, with nowhere to go.
Had they been Maltese, we would be talking about homelessness, poverty, social exclusion, and the rest. So why aren’t we?
The answer to that is partly in the wasteland, partly in skin colour. As far as living conditions are concerned, blacks don’t count. It doesn’t really matter that they sleep in cowsheds (or outside them), or that they eat out of cans, literally. That, after all, is how black Africans figure in the public imagination. Mrieħel is more of the same, and not particularly shocking.
Nor are any of them classified as poor or homeless or ‘social cases’, simply because they do not even belong in society in the first place. They do not vote, and are politically disenfranchised. The best they can do is contribute to our economy, with an emphasis on the ‘our’.
They are the wasteland, the rubble and rubbish that’s been pushed to the edges, out of sight and out of mind. Economically, socially and politically, they are outside the system (even as they make it).
As I write, a kitten lies dead and mourned by outraged thousands. And a hundred black Africans lie on beds made of rubbish and stones, cared about by next to nobody.
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