Last Saturday, JEF brought together a group of remarkable people, to see if we could become something more – apologies, I watched Infinity War a day after the seminar and I’m confusing the two events. Nonetheless, for an open debate on migration, JEF did indeed bring together remarkable people in their own right, sans CGI and a genocidal maniac of a villain. I promise I’m done talking about Infinity War.
The panel consisted of three individuals who work tirelessly towards the integration of migrants in Malta. Mr. Luca Caramagna, who works at the Office of the Refugee Commissioner reviewing applications from asylum seekers; Ms. Sara Ezabe, who co-founded Redefining Us and other campaigns aimed at redefining the presumptions many have about minority groups; and finally, Dr. Ahmed Bugri, from the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants, which has been on the front lines of the issue for decades.
Mr. Caramagna offered insight on the lengthy process asylum seekers must go through in order to receive international protection. He emphasised the fact that this is only granted to people who would have suffered persecution due to their nationality, race, religion, political opinion or social group. He noted that interviews are never interrogations, applicants are always given the benefit of the doubt. Nonetheless, the burden of proof remains on the applicant. He went on to distinguish between factual claims - that can be verified through media reports for instance, though those are not always entirely reliable, and emotional claims, which are by far more difficult to assess as feelings are subjective.
Asked about the amount of rejected applications, Mr. Caramagna noted that Malta has a very high acceptance rate, although there are a number of inadmissible applications. At which point Dr. Bugri interjected to point out that certain countries are legally deemed as “safe countries of origin”, despite that not always being the case, giving Cote d’Ivoire as an example and going back to an earlier point, in that conflict often goes unreported. In fact, the influence of the media, which often chooses to not report less “sexy” stories, was a sticking point throughout the debate.
Throughout the discussion, Ms. Ezabe drew on her own personal experience. Through Redefining Us, she has visited numerous schools around Malta in order to educate younger generations on matters of cultural integration. This is not to say older generations are completely left out, and her TV appearances target this audience. She stressed the fact that the response throughout her campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. Even when faced with students whose parents may have influenced them in a certain way, “they respond in an open manner. They look into it with an open mind.”
What was really evident in Ms. Ezabe’s approach to the issue was her positivity. The numerous comments she overhears passed about her on the street simply for wearing a hijab - comments which, unbeknownst to the street pundit, she fully understands on account of being Maltese – have only strengthened her resolve in driving towards a more inclusive society.
“In Malta, the word migrant has a very specific meaning: ‘a black man who came here by boat.’ A Libyan or Syrian is not a migrant, an African is.”
Like Ms. Ezabe, Dr. Bugri also drew on his own experience as a Maltese citizen, pointing to the fact that it was only after 2002 that he was called a migrant, when people began arriving from sub-Saharan Africa by boat. People who would have gone through an arduous journey already, locked up in detention centres for eighteen months. In his view, the Maltese mindset was ‘they have no right to be here, they’re here to take our jobs.’ And the media only fed into this frenzy, with cultural understanding pushed aside in favour of sensationalist coverage of riots in detention centres.
Dr. Bugri believes that it’s a bottom-up approach that’s required if something is to be done; positive discussions need to be had in the mainstream media. He lamented the fact that migration is not attractive enough for the media to discuss and hopes to see more initiatives like Ms. Ezabe’s, where minorities begin to speak for themselves and only then can the situation begin to change.
The debate ended on a positive note, with all panellists feeling that diversity only enriches Malta and that the prejudices many face in this country must be overcome, with all three believing that more open discussion is needed to better the situation.
And yet, just last Tuesday, Adrian Delia delivered yet another tone-deaf speech, treading ever so closely to populist rhetoric - something I’ve grown accustomed to in Malta – voicing his concerns on the influx of migrant workers and the loss of the so-called Maltese identity. Driving one point that stemmed from the debate home: politicians, on both sides of the aisle, have nothing to gain by speaking in an open, positive way about migration. Only we have the ability to change that.
There was, of course, much more said than I was able to fit in here. If you’re interested, I urge you to listen to the whole debate here on the JEF Malta Facebook page.