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Visiting the Open Centers

Visiting the Open Centers

Over the past few days we have heard presentations from a number of individuals involved in different aspects of the refugee situation.  Some of these include: the director of Jesuit Refugee Services Malta, the Refugee Commissioner responsible for determining whether or not an applicant receives refugee status, a Police official who handles arriving “boat people” (as most Maltese refer to them), the head of Maltese Emigration Commission (ironically established to assist Maltese emigrants to other countries post WWII, but converted to assisting migrants in the 80’s), inhabitants of the Balzan Open Center where migrants are transferred after detention, the director and a psychologist social worker at Marsa, an NGO-run open center, and inhabitants of Balzan and Marsa.  It has been useful and important to hear from all of these different perspectives, and to try to fit them all together into one concept of the process as a whole.  There is a great deal of fear, ignorance, suspicion etc. on the part of the Maltese, including some who fear that the Africans are coming to “take over” their island, others who have, according to a few of the migrants we spoke to, sincerely asked them if they have a sky or water in Africa, etc.  But there are also many Maltese who provide clothing, shelter, donations, or most importantly, their time to refugees and migrants.  It has been hard on a number of levels to speak to migrants.  Many are understandably suspicious of us, fearful, or perhaps angry with foreigners in general.  They have risked their lives, been through unimaginable hardship, and have been treated as criminals upon first arrival to Europe.  We have tried to be as respectful as possible in our visits, but on a certain level, no matter how good your intentions are, there is no way to communicate that to a person who does not share your language, has been through such turmoil, and is in a foreign and seemingly hostile place.  We have mostly seen and spoken with young men, most from Somalia.  Given their experience, I can say that I have been amazed at their spirit of optimism and if not outright “friendliness,” at least openness to speaking frankly with us and answering any of our questions.  The discussions that we have had have also been hard on a personal and emotional level.  It is challenging to know what to ask and how to respond to the answers that we get.  For example, one of the young Somali men, when asked about family, told us that his older brother was “slaughtered,” and that because of this his mother encouraged him to flee Somalia.  It is impossible to find any appropriate words to respond to something like that.

The center that we visited today in Marsa currently houses approximately 400 people, mostly young men between the ages of 18 and 22.  Because the administration of this center is contracted out to a private NGO rather than being run directly by the government it is reportedly one of the best centers.  If this was the best center it is painful to think of what the others are like.  We will be visiting one tomorrow which is run directly by the government and reputedly very bad.  Today’s center has 16-22 men to a room, who are each allowed one bunk of a bunk-bed and a gym-sized locker for belongings.  There are language and other classes which have recently been made compulsory, as well as other services designed to assist the men in integrating into the society and becoming “self-sufficient.”  If I have not already mentioned it, it is important to note that any individual caught entering Malta “irregularly” is immediately detained in what is essentially a prison, where they cannot do anything except await the decision on their application for asylum.  The decision can take up to a year, and when it is made they are released to an open center.  So there is essentially no point of detaining them in such conditions for so long, other than to try to deter migrants from coming to Malta.  So back to the conditions at Marsa: the men are allowed to come and go as they please, but there is a security gate and pretty foul-smelling canal surrounding the premises so that only those who are registered can enter.  At night, the area in front of the center, which is right across from a shipyard in what seemed like a pretty shady area even by day, is a notorious red-light district (a couple Maltese guys driving by tried to pick us up while we were waiting for the rest of our group).

The experience here in Malta has been very eye-opening, but hard to stomach.  Most agree that the migrants do not really want to be in Malta, many Maltese do not want them here (or are at least wary of their presence), and yet they are here, and for many of them there are no legal means of changing that fact.  As an American living in America, surrounded by a network of friends and loving family, fueled by a sense of having the power to improve my situation and the means to pursue what I desire, I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to be in their shoes.  The end of the conversation with the migrants has been the hardest and most indicative of this contrast, as I cannot think of anything better to say than simply “goodbye.”

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