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Why we need integration

Posted Date: 14/08/2011

The Malta Independent on Sunday - 14 August 2011

Despite the adversity, despite the odds, despite the almost complete lack of assistance from the rest of the European Union, Malta, at the end of the day, has coped with the Africa-Europe migratory phenomenon in good stead.

The country weathered out that storm, which constitutes barely a drizzle these days, through many hard times since 2005. But, all in all, Malta housed, fed and gave the humanitarian protection it is obliged – both morally and legally – to provide for legitimate refugees.

On balance, the country should be commended for its efforts, the Armed Forces in particular for having rescued thousands of people from dangerous seas.

But now that the migration tidal wave has for all intents and purposes subsided into a ripple, it is time for Malta to rise to the next challenge – of integrating into our communities those people to whom we have provided refuge and protection.

Perhaps over the last six-odd years we have been focusing so much on damage control and on seeking to compel Malta’s fellow EU states to lend a tangible helping hand, that the country has not thought about this next phase in this state of affairs. Of course there are several groups – governmental and non-governmental alike – that are doing sterling work along such lines but it is at the individual and community levels where that change must also take place.

This week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Malta Office and SOS Malta held a seminar on this precise topic – of better integrating beneficiaries of protection into our society and communities. And what rankled significantly was the effective snubbing of the event of all the country’s 444 local councillors, despite the fact that every local council had been invited.

There are approximately 3,500 irregular migrants residing in Malta today – 1,000 of whom live as our neighbours in Malta and Gozo’s towns and villages – a number that pales in comparison to those of previous years. The rest are housed at the moment in open and closed centres.

But despite this, and despite the fact that six whole years have passed since the beginning of the irregular migration phenomenon in 2005, Maltese and migrants are clearly not integrating, according to the results of two separate surveys carried out by the seminar’s organisers.

Both surveys confirmed a void of integration as well as a still ever-present feeling of discrimination among the country’s resident refugees. In fact, migrants surveyed said they had no or very little contact with Maltese people on any level whatsoever.

The surveys found that the vast majority of those living in Malta under international protection have never visited a local council or have even heard of the Housing Authority. Very few migrants or Maltese surveyed have ever been involved in any form of intercultural or interfaith activity.

It is very concerning when there is a section of society, in this case amounting to close to one per cent of the population, that are, in most cases, nameless, faceless non-entities as far as most people are concerned. This, of course, is not to say there are not the exceptions. There are plenty such exceptions, but not anywhere near enough.

Page 20 of today’s issue carries two very interesting comment pieces, one penned by Parliamentary Secretary Chris Said, and the other by EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström. Both deal with the EU’s dilemmas with its ageing population and the sustainability of pension systems.

Dr Said points out that in the next 50 years all of Europe, and Malta here is no exception – it is actually one of the worst off – will be facing demographic changes leading to a 15 per cent drop in the working age population.

The EU, he points out, had experienced a significant spike in immigration between 2004 and 2005 of four million immigrants coming into the bloc, but by 2050 the bloc will need no less than 60 million immigrant workers to account for the shortfall between those paying for the pension systems and those in retirement.

Ms Malmström, in a slightly different vein, observes that the EU’s working population is set to decline by 50 million by 2060, and that while there were 3.5 people in the EU of working age for each pensioner, that figure is set to drop to 1.7 by 2060. So who, 50 years down the line, will be paying for our pensions?

Making a strong argument in favour of labour migration, Ms Malmström makes a case for the EU’s Blue Card scheme, which helps with admission and mobility of highly qualified workers for sectors where there is a demand. Several hundred highly qualified sub-Saharan Africans – nurses, doctors, engineers – have undoubtedly landed on Malta’s shores in recent years, but were undoubtedly quickly and quietly disregarded.

She goes on to explain that, contrary to existing misconceptions, migrants do not damage national labour markets by ‘taking’ jobs from nationals or lowering wages. In fact, she observes, the general case is that migrant workers take jobs in areas where nationals would rather not work or where nationals of that country are not qualified in.

Indeed, the entire approach to the migratory phenomenon is being reinvented across Europe. It is time we begin thinking along similar lines, and that we do so with integration initiatives.

Immigration, Malta’s bête noir of the second half of this millennium’s first decade could, in actual fact, be its saving grace in a few decades’ time. It is high time we start thinking more about really welcoming these people into our communities.



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