“Boat people” is how the illegal immigrants from Africa to Europe are mostly described. After the boat, there is a second step for them, across a new space, time and culture. European and Maltese policies forced them to have a further difficult journey.
On the road to Hal-Far, between the international airport and a disused airport, the European Union is present. Some signs display the reconstruction of the road was funded by an EU contribution. This road is fifteen kilometres from the capital city Valletta. It takes around half an hour by the bus line 113 via Birzebugga to reach it. This road is also the “end of the road” as immigrants who are currently habitants of the open-centre, who are mostly under a “subsidiary protection” status.
Living in an open-centre
To go to the open-centre of Hal-Far, you have to follow the international airport and go straight away behind it, in a “no man’s land”, like you are in the middle of nowhere (plan of Hal-Far, credits to “Visions Cartographiques”, a blog on Le Monde Diplomatique). Even on the small island of Malta, Hal-Far seems far away from the cities. There are only constructions and a port in the neighbourhood. In this context, the containers of the “tent camp” Hal-Far are quite unremarkable. They are part of the landscape. Even more since the tents have been replaced by containers. In front of Hal-Far tents camp, plastic bottles and dishes are the normality. Hal-Far centre is so : a squalor place with containers between two airports. All these things remind you that they should not be there and that some of them are under the pressure of a rejected status.
Another open-centre, in Marsa, is an old school that has been renovated to host the migrants. Conditions are what they are when you live with 500 people coming from other countries, most of the time suffering war. They sleep in dorms of 20 persons, and you have a place to cook but no chair to eat. Things are better in Marsa than in Hal-Far, thanks to the education centre and the proximity of the place to find a job, but still not really “welcoming” too. According to the migrants living in open-centres, they don’t even feel safe.
Ways between the centre
People who live in these centres left everything behind them. Before coming to Malta, they had to cross over the sea on a boat. It means lot of dangers and high level of mortality during the trip. But is the journey really over when they land on the Maltese coasts? A refugee from Eritrea spoke about his landing on the Maltese coast : “When we arrived. We could finally wait for the police to get caught. It was the end of the journey.”
When they get caught, illegal immigrants are sent to detention centres like the one near Hal-Far tents camp, named Lyster Barracks, or Safi detention centre. This is their first movement on an island they don’t even know. Sometimes, they don’t know Malta either. Their goal was Italy and the island Lampedusa. This is also the first period of staying. The period can last 18 months maximum. A half-year in detention, without any work possibilities and in difficult and tense situation (reports “not criminals” by MSF). The immigrants have nothing to do. Just wait to know if they’re going to be approved by the asylum commission or being rejected. Just here to wait and go to a second place : one of the open-centres.
The road to integration
At the Marsa centre, immigrants are supposed to stay a year maximum. It means already two years and a half for those who stayed 18 months in detention. Some of them don’t find another place to live, don’t find money or work. They just stay longer in the centre. Some exceptional cases are here. One of the “habitants” of the Marsa centre has been in Europe for twenty years and still lives in an open-centre. That’s how they have to live, all on a trip, to go to find a job and go back to the centre, and to wait for something better that might not be coming. They will either find a way to be part of the Maltese community, or have to emigrate to some place else, like the USA, France, or Germany.
In fact, the issue for African immigrants and refugees is not only a journey for them. It’s also a concerned for the Maltese society. “It is a question of time”, said Edward Scicluna, the vice-chairman and committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs in the European Parliament, to answer if black people could integrate into the society and be a Maltese citizen. “Maltese should be educated to the problems for the immigrants and the economic benefits they can provide. After the shock in 2002, we need time to react more in a rational way.” Jon P Hoisaeter of UNHCR in Malta goes further : “there is a long way to go to integrate”, but “Malta is not to small to integrate people”. The journey for a “new” Maltese society is just at the beginning.