Racism in Malta cannot be divorced from economic policy and two decades of racialised political rhetoric around ethnicity, nation and belonging that have fed into deadly policies on asylum, exploitative labour practices, human rights violations, grotesque racist attacks and, ultimately, the brutal murder of Lassana Cisse.

Racial injustice and xenophobia are a daily occurrence in Malta, affecting the lives of thousands of people, a source of untold suffering that hinders the potential of too many children and young people in particular. Racism is not limited to the beliefs and actions of individuals. Instead, it is systemic and institutionalised.

In May 2020, the government expressed a commitment to changing the situation by launching a consultation process to inform Malta’s first national action plan against racism and xenophobia. The result of these efforts, the Anti-Racism Strategy, has just been announced and will be presented to stakeholders in the coming days. This can be a powerful tool in setting a clear agenda to combat racial inequality and xenophobia in Malta. It has the potential to make a real difference to people’s lives and, for this reason, it cannot and must not be an exercise in empty rhetoric and political games.

Systemic racism in Malta maintains differential access to services and opportunities, reproduces poverty and affects the quality of life and well-being of individuals, families and children of colour and minority ethnic groups. Discrimination directly impacts access to affordable and decent housing, adequate healthcare, education and meaningful learning and job opportunities to secure a dignified and fair income, while also influencing interactions with the police and the criminal justice system.

Racism is produced and upheld through norms, policies and practices entrenched deep within our institutions, reproducing inequities between different racial and ethnic groups. To be clear, the institutions duty-bound to protect are a source of violence, neglect and abuse, perpetuating the idea that black lives do not matter, or not as much, anyway.

A meaningful and honest anti-racism strategy must acknowledge this reality. It must commit to dismantling existing racist structures and to investing in policies, practices and procedures designed to fight xenophobia and ensure racial equality and justice. This cannot be a tokenistic exercise to garner a few Facebook likes and ‘sexy’ photo ops.

It is not enough to express shock in response to racist attacks or to simply condemn discrimination against black people, persons of colour and minority ethnic and religious groups. It is time to take an active anti-racist position and commit to a strategy that confronts racism wherever it festers, within and across Maltese society and institutions. This includes education, the police, the armed forces, parliament, the criminal justice system, the media, sports, entertainment and other structures.

The strategy should provide policymakers, service providers and frontline workers with clear guidance on this set of renewed national priorities. This should be reflected in a broad range of measures establishing coordinated and complementary actions, as well as built-in mechanisms to effect institutional and systemic change and record and evaluate progress.

Racial injustice and xenophobia are a daily occurrence in Malta- Maria Pisani

It should also provide groups affected by racism and xenophobia, as well as social partners and NGOs, with effective mechanisms to engage in ongoing dialogue, aimed at supporting implementation and holding government and national institutions to account.

The plan must acknowledge and respond to racism and xenophobia’s intersection with other forms of discrimination, including but not limited to sex, age, faith, language, nationality, sexual orientation and legal status.

While discrimination is experienced by many migrants and ethnic and racial minority Maltese, some groups, particularly black asylum seekers and beneficiaries of protection, remain victims of ongoing hostility, violence and segregation (detention, racial profiling and policing immediately come to mind here).

The effective implementation of the strategy and lasting change demand honesty, political will and long-term investment. This requires human resources, capacity building and adequate funding of measures and initiatives.

While the Anti-Racism Strategy is the primary responsibility of the government, it cannot do this alone. Parliament has a moral and legal obligation to ensure that the plan is recognised as a critical tool in improving the human rights situation, strengthening democracy and enriching well-being in Malta. The plan should represent a long-term commitment that endures as governments change, demanding strong commitment from and across the political class.

Malta is a multiracial and multicultural nation. This is not a statement of ideological position but a simple statement of fact. The nation’s pulse depends on migrants’ contribution to key public sectors, the economy and cultural life. These individuals belong to an evolving community that calls Malta home.

Young Maltese of colour and minority ethnicity are stirring society’s racial conscience while unapologetically taking a political stand. They are ‘Maltin bħalek’ (Maltese like you), renegotiating notions of Malteseness and belonging. It is time for black people, persons of colour and minority ethnic groups to lead and inform the debate on race relations in Malta.

But they should not have to fight for racial equality alone. The struggle against the scourge of racism and xenophobia demands the commitment of allies to listen, to take individual responsibility, to reflect on and check their own beliefs, prejudices and behaviour. It requires allies to remain vigilant, alert to microaggressions, to confront racial injustice, discrimination and hate, to be outspoken advocates, holding individuals and institutions to account, to be active in their solidarity with black lives.

On a personal note, I await to learn the finer details of the Anti-Racism Strategy with a mix of dread and hope. The past 20 years have been marked by inexcusable violence and collective failure to address institutional racism in Malta. This is an opportunity for the government, and all of us interested in making Malta a better home, to learn from the past and do better. Make it worthwhile.

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