As authorities claim tensions in Marsa have subsided, several migrants believe problems cannot be eradicated by racial profiling but by integration efforts.
Brewing tensions came to a head last month following a fight between two migrants, one of whom was seen carrying a knife.
“One of the men was released shortly afterwards, and came back to pick up the fight,” an Eritrean man told Times of Malta.
The incident prodded the authorities to tackle an issue many believe is bubbling over.
Marsa mayor Francis Debono confirmed that patrols had increased in his locality.
“They even stopped me the other week for ID control, and I am glad that they stopped me as a Maltese person, because they are after criminal infringements carried out by anyone and not just immigrants. The situation in Marsa is under control now,” Mr Debono said.
But some migrants claim they are being singled out by the police.
“Some locals were naturally afraid after this knife incident, and so the police began carrying out patrols on an almost daily basis. People who used to be standing drinking outside the bar were asked to go inside, or leave,” an Eritrean man said.
“They also asked for the bar permit,” the Eritrean bar owner said as a police car patrolled an adjacent street.
'I think it's because we are black'
This time the bar owner went quickly inside, while the Eritrean refugees were keen to explain their current condition.
Even the media says it was 'Africans' who did it when there are more than 54 countries in the African continent.
“Yes, we live in Marsa now. We have our own apartments and when we work we pay taxes like everybody else. But, the situation for us now is not so easy in Malta,” one migrant said, speaking confidently in English.
Why are the police telling all of us to stay inside, just because a couple of men caused trouble?
“Why are the police telling all of us to stay inside, just because a couple of men caused trouble?” he said.
Another migrant chipped in: “I think it’s because we are black. We feel like the Maltese are racists.” His Eritrean counterparts nodded in agreement.
“They treat us like we are all just one group of African trouble-makers, even the media says it was 'Africans' who did it when there are more than 54 countries in the African continent. We never saw a report on ‘European’ trouble-makers, they mention their nationalities.”
A store owner in the area offered another perspective of the situation.
“It’s better now since the police began patrolling. But in general, the situation here is bad,” the shop assistant told Times of Malta.
“People have been stealing bottles of wine and whisky, using another person to distract me. They also took some bananas that I’d just placed on the scales next to the entrance. I think they, ‘the black’, are all bad,” he sighed.
The shop assistant at a nearby supermarket seemed less harsh.
“Most of the time this is a quiet area, there are some individuals of course – some of them not so well-educated – who start screaming at each other, but this could be the case anywhere,” she said.
“But lately, some people I know avoid coming here – because they are afraid. They [the migrants] are all different. Some come here daily to buy food, or whatever they need, without causing any trouble,” the shop assistant continued.
“The police don’t come inside, but they have been patrolling the area more frequently over the last few weeks. We do not know why,” she told Times of Malta.
A subdued atmosphere during daytime
During the Times of Malta visit to Marsa police patrolled the streets at least three times.
The day visit to Marsa, however, paints a somewhat different picture to the chaotic situation portrayed by some who organised a protest on September 17.
The atmosphere around Triq Is-Salib Tal-Marsa and Triq Balbi was subdued. Locals were walking in and out of a supermarket. On the benches outside the church, a couple of individuals sought refuge from the midday sun. In front of a bar a group of men were seated while talking quietly.
Towards the church square not far from the Marsa open centre, Ali*, an asylum seeker from Pakistan, offers a warm handshake. When we met last April outside the open centre, Ali had expressed disappointment at how the European system had turned out to be nothing but an illusion of “paradise” for him. He complained about the way he had been treated by employers and the authorities, among others. This time Ali looked much happier.
“I’m waiting for a decision about my procedure by tomorrow,” he explained, with a sense of delight. “If I’m not accepted to stay, I will go back to my home country,” he said.
Apart from Ali, few migrants were visible outside the open centre this afternoon.
“Some have been moved to Ħal Far, because they were going to relocate the open centre,” Ali said, holding a newly-bought packet of eggs and water bottles.
He claimed that around 18 people were living in the open centre, when previously around 160 did so. It is unclear how many migrants actually reside in the open centre, with a Home Affairs and National Security spokesperson saying there were “a few tens”.
*Not his real name. Persons interviewed for the piece asked to remain anonymous.
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