Some foreign nationals living in Malta say they are leaving the country – or have already left – because of feelings of increased xenophobia during the pandemic.

Dozens of people came forward on social media when asked by Times of Malta about the reasons, excluding job loss, for choosing to move on from the country they had called home.

Common answers included the growing cost of living, corruption, over-development and pollution. However, most cited an increasing feeling of xenophobia since the COVID-19 pandemic began, and described it as “the last straw” when making their final decision.

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“Originally we had planned to stay in Malta until we passed away, but not with a situation where you get so much hatred,” says Karin Perez Deldgado. She and her husband returned to Germany in recent weeks after almost five years in Malta.

The couple enjoyed their first three-and-a-half years on the island, but said things started to decline and they felt harassed and threatened in their neighbourhood of Balzan.

“We heard ‘go back to your country’ one too many times,” says Karin who believes intolerance worsened with the pandemic.

“Everyone was blaming foreigners for COVID. So I stayed at home for two months. I can’t even count how many times I cried.”

Another woman preparing to leave the islands on the first available flight next month is Justyna Majcher. She and her son will move to Poland after living here for 12 years.

Like Karin, she says she’s experienced multiple incidents of xenophobia.

“There are only so many times you can try and fight for the country you love, when not only is nothing changing, but your fight is being looked down upon.”

She estimates that she’s been told to ‘go back to your country’ more than 100 times in the past decade. 

Exact figures on how many people have left – or are planning on leaving – are unavailable. Many people do not go through official channels like the Department of Foreign Affairs or their embassy or consulate for repatriation flights.

We heard ‘go back to your own country’ too many times

Other countries such as Singapore have seen a similar coronavirus trend of ex-pats leaving to be closer to family, while New Zealand – for example – reported seeing thousands of its citizens return between January and March. But despite Malta’s low numbers of COVID19-related deaths, some say it’s not enough to keep them here.

Two particular government missteps during the pandemic were defining moments. The first took place just weeks after coronavirus hit Malta when Economy Minister Silvio Schembri told parliament: “When foreign workers lose their jobs, they will have to go back to their country.” The minister later apologised.

One Irish businesswoman, who has lived in Malta for 12 years, says the couple plan to leave next year. “I cried for hours after the economy minister made his statements. He should have been forced to resign. We have tirelessly tried to integrate because we thought the Maltese people shared our values of respect, humanity and sense of justice. Foreigners are not the enemy.”

The second incident was when the government announced it will give €100 vouchers to everyone aged over 16 to spend in local businesses in an attempt to boost the economy. However, when some EU citizens tried to access the vouchers, they were told only people on the general elections voter registry were eligible. The news caused mass outrage on social media and forced a government U-turn. Many described feeling ‘discriminated’ against, including one British couple who have changed their minds about spending the rest of their days here.

“We felt we were being treated unfairly, especially as we contribute financially and also do all we can to look after our area. We have found that locals seem a lot less tolerant of foreigners since the start of coronavirus. We have been told we should not be out walking our dogs because we are British and should ‘go back to where we came from’.”

Tom Erik Skjonsberg runs the Facebook Group ‘Ex-Pats Malta’ which has 39,000 members. He says he hasn’t noticed a marked rise in people leaving, but has noticed discussions becoming more aggressive. “It’s definitely worsened from both the Maltese and expat side. People are more blatant about being impolite, to put it mildly.”

Of course not everyone feels the same way. iGaming company Betsson, which is one of the biggest employers on the islands, says few members of its staff left because of the pandemic.

“In mid-March, in light of the imminent closure of airports across Europe, we did have a few requests from people who wanted to go back to their country in order to be close to their families,” says CEO Jesper Svensson.

“We are now seeing employees and new hires eager to return and come to Malta, waiting for the airport to reopen so that they can make the necessary arrangements to come back to the island.”

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