Malta’s integration policy looks good on paper and migrants express the willingness to integrate. But many are getting lost in the bureaucratic processes involved and are even disheartened by what should be the simple act of applying for an ID card, says Ahmed Bugre, head of the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants. Interview by Sarah Carabott
It took Ahmed Bugre two weeks to explain the significance of an identity card to a migrant who had been in Malta for a decade.
Once he had all the required documentation in hand, it took the migrant another week to obtain the prized ID – a process that takes any Maltese national a couple of hours.
“He kept being sent from one office to another, asked to provide further documents,” Dr Bugre, director of the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants (FSM), an NGO, told The Sunday Times of Malta.
“When it comes to foreigners, public service delivery is seen not as an entitlement but rather as a burden on the system, even though these people are contributing economically to the system.”
Dr Bugre was speaking to this newspaper following the death last month of the Nigerian girl Victoria, after she was rushed to hospital from a residence in Żabbar.
Following the tragedy, concerns were raised about gaps in the system and the integration process.
Dr Bugre did not comment on the case, which is still being investigated, but instead referred to his experience with migrants in Malta generally, which spans more than two decades.
He praised a recent series of initiatives that includes the setting up of the Human Rights and Integration Directorate and an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Integration, the drawing up of a Migrant Integration Strategy and Action Plan, efforts by Jobsplus to cut down on migrant exploitation, and the creation of a migration coordinator desk at the Ministry for Home Affairs that brings together stakeholders in the field.
However, it is important that those implementing these initiatives take a bottom-up approach, he insisted.
Malta, he said, has to shift its focus from integration – which has to come from the foreigner himself – to inclusion – where foreigners are included in the decision-making processes. It is not about having rights – which exist on paper – but about access to these rights.
“As opposed to integration, where one is asked to attend a conference, inclusion ensures that foreigners living in Malta are involved in the planning of the conference.
“If we are drawing up a cultural calendar, are foreigners invited to showcase their culture or are they made to feel that they are part and parcel of the programme?”
According to recent national data, Malta’s resident population has increased to over 460,000 people, with foreigners making up 11.8 per cent of the total. Very few of these do not work, Dr Bugre noted, adding that the country is becoming increasingly diverse, especially as a result of the growing economy. However, the local institutions have not adapted to this diversification and still focus on the native Maltese population, while treating foreigners as “temporary”.
Dr Bugre believes the government and civil society should work together as NGOs know people’s heartbeat, struggles and issues. Instead, the two sides are growing apart, he feels, because advocacy is sometimes perceived as a stand against the government.
He insists collaboration between civil society and the government is imperative, because it is the former that can break down and explain the government’s policy to migrants.
It is not about having rights – which exist on paper – but about access to these rights
However, without any financial backing, NGOs find it difficult to provide guidance that requires the services of professionals such as lawyers.
The systemic gaps are not present in the policy but rather in the implementation of the policy, Dr Bugre said.
“The system is so bureaucratic that it needs hours – if not weeks – to explain a simple process to a sceptical person. This is especially true for those who have sought asylum here and were detained upon arrival.
“They don’t trust the system because their first experience of Malta was horrific and they still carry the scar. When they face a problem, even 10 years down the line, they regress to that traumatic experience.”
Meanwhile, people who have succumbed to past trauma and are hospitalised at Mount Carmel find it difficult to reintegrate once they are discharged. FSM tries to help them out. One of the biggest challenges remains finding accommodation for them. Without a fixed address, they have no access to counselling and other rehabilitation services.
This often sees them being accommodated at the open centres, triggering past trauma that in turn leads them back to Mount Carmel Hospital.
Others take another way out and die by suicide: “Almost every migrant death is a tragedy – and that is a symptomatic effect of exclusion. This is something we need to address, and government cannot do it on its own.”
The ‘sending you back home’ threat
Filipino carers who enter into a dispute with their employer, after they realise they are being exploited, could find themselves unable to fight for what is rightfully theirs. Without a place of residence and money to buy food, they are forced to return home.
Although they can take up their case with the Department of Industrial and Employment Relations, they cannot acquire a work permit with someone else until their dispute is resolved.
In the meantime, even those who have been here for years have no access to social benefits in the interim.
They have no other choice but to return home, and sometimes they do not speak up, even though they are aware that they are being exploited, because their employer threatens to send them back home.
“After working here for five years shouldn’t they be given some form of permanency? I know some who have been here for 10 years, and still have to renew their ID card every year.
“We are telling them that they can work here, but not integrate. Although this is not the message on paper, but in action this is what they feel.”
Unable to integrate when your family is broken up
There are hundreds of people in Malta who have been separated from their families for years – even up to 10 years.
Most of them have gainful employment, but although they were provided protection as they cannot be returned home, they were not granted the right to bring over their family.
“Without family reunification, they will never feel integrated, no matter the efforts to integrate them.
“They feel that they are unwanted here, and rightly so, ask: how can I integrate into a society that discriminates against me?”
Paying taxes and social contributions but no access to social benefits
People with ‘Temporary Humanitarian Protection – New’ (THPn) receive no social benefits despite paying taxes and social security after gaining a work permit which costs them €58.
THPn is a form of regularisation granted to those who “through no fault of their own” cannot be returned to their home country.
“Why are people provided with a work permit, required to pay taxes and social security, but are not entitled to benefits? Are we using these people for our benefit? The system wants integration, but it is exclusionary.”
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