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Monday, August 23, 2010

Between ‘the rock’ and a hard place by Caroline Muscat

Immigration issues and problems in Malta! Powerful and interesting  article.
Here the full version from the Malta independent Online

When Suleiman committed suicide in the dormitory he shared with other migrants at the Marsa Open Centre,it was a wake-up call to those who witnessed it. Now, two young men dare to hope in a life that has no meaning. Alidu Osman and Abshir Abdala are among the exiles of the modern age. They live between a lost past and a changing present. In their journey between different worlds, they are at home in none. Their greatest fear is despair; the same kind of despair that consumed Suleiman. Coming from entirely different backgrounds and completely diverse social contexts, they have nothing in common except one goal – a future.

Their predicament is difficult to understand. It is almost impossible to imagine a life where the only certain thing is the here and now. In such a life, hope and ambition are futile. Relationships are a luxury. Even self-respect is difficult to preserve.
“I do not know who I am,” says 22-year-old Alidu, looking down at the floor. He left Ghana five years ago, too young to know what the journey held in store for him. Instead of escaping to a future, he is now stuck in a present that never ends.

His friend Abshir even regrets leaving war-torn Somalia: “I jumped from the frying pan into the fire. I have no future here”. “The discrimination around me makes me a prisoner of myself. I have built my own boundaries to avoid embarrassment,” says the 31-year old husband and father of two children he has not seen in over a year. In Malta, the two men have become friends. Together they now form part of a movement for change. They have hope in the Migrants’ Network for Equality they launched earlier this month with the support of 12 local non-governmental organisations and 26 university academics.

They want to be an active part of Maltese society, contributing positively to the debate on migration. Their first action was to write a letter to Justice Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici. It was signed by representatives of communities in Malta coming from Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Ghana, Niger, Mali, Guinea Bissau, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Gambia and Sierra Leone.

In their letter, the message is simple: “While we are fully aware that life for us can never be easy, as most of us left our families and belongings back home and are now in the difficult process of starting a new life in a foreign country, we are conscious of the fact that certain factors related to policy are making our life harder and resulting in much suffering among many of us.”

They ask Dr Mifsud Bonnici to review policies on documentation, movement within the European Union, asylum procedures, discrimination, accommodation and employment.
“Maybe the Justice Minister doesn’t know the real conditions we live in. If they are brought to his attention, he can do something about it,” says Alidu, betraying an innocence even injustice could not dent. The letter was sent almost three weeks ago. “We have not received a reply yet. Perhaps they are busy,” he adds. They have not even received an acknowledgment.
In the meantime, their message extends beyond the silent walls of the Justice Ministry. Their concerns reflect a wider problem related to rising xenophobia and racism in this place that is lovingly, or not so lovingly, referred to as ‘The Rock’.

A lesson in humanity
All he has is nostalgia for a past, fixed time, when his identity was rooted in a community. It is a past to which he can never return. Both his parents are dead, and Alidu says he is wanted.

A convenient truth
In its report last year, ECRI confirmed that “people under humanitarian protection and refugees faced racial discrimination in accessing various services and exploitation in the labour market”. The Commission also noted that the detention policies put in place by the authorities to respond to the challenges of irregular immigration were “seriously reinforcing perceptions of immigrants as criminals and increasing the levels of racism and xenophobia among the general population.”

Abshir’s situation is one example. In Somalia, he was a full time biology teacher. He lived his life setting a good example to his students. When he was forced to leave, he sent his wife and children to Kenya for safety, while he attempted to use his skills and education in Europe so his family could at some point gain freedom.
When he arrived in Malta, he was confined to the detention centre where he became ill and had to be taken to hospital. He was handcuffed for the journey and constantly accompanied by an officer.
“When they put the handcuffs on me, I was shocked. Handcuffs are put on criminals. Suddenly, I am the one wearing them. When we entered the hospital waiting room and I saw everyone looking at me, I understood what they were seeing. I turned to my officer and told him to take me away. I could not bear it,” he says.

If the problems related to such double standards escape the attention of those same authorities entrusted with handling migrants’ concerns, how is it possible to expect a society that is free from prejudice? It is an infectious attitude that culminates in the often-repeated phrase targeting migrants: “If you don’t like it, go back to your country”.

Moving on
Abshir is grateful that his time in detention was a relatively short one. Due to his particularly vulnerable situation, he was let out after four months. Those who arrived with him on the same boat, in February of last year, are still there.
“The detention centres do not stop people from making the journey from Libya. All detention does is promote suffering,” he says, shaking his head. He cannot, and will not, accept that things do not change.
I believe change can come. It may take long, but it can come. All I wanted was peace and freedom. I have peace, but not complete freedom because of the social segregation surrounding me. I have to be part of the community to contribute to it,” Abshir insists.
He finds the authorities’ silence particularly disturbing. The most recent case involving the rescue of 55 migrants from his country is impossible to ignore at this point.

That change starts to happen when every individual who witnesses discrimination refuses to turn away. Change is possible when citizens demand it from their elected representatives. How a state deals with immigrants should be a measure of its social and political health.
Migration has always been a core process of global politics and historical change. The theme of migration has been part of the collective human narrative for as long as there has been recorded history. Its roots lie in poverty, economic deprivation, persecution and failed states.
It is simply not possible to ignore the world’s dispossessed.

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