September 18, 2009
As some of you are aware, Malika and I recently spent two weeks in Malta researching and attempting to document the experiences of asylum seekers and refugees who find themselves on the small island. I am certain it will not be our last visit. I shall definitely return.
Each year, hundreds and into the thousands of individuals make a perilous journey across the Sahara, through Libya and onto the Mediterranean Sea in search of safety in the European Union. They pack themselves into trucks and then boats run by criminals who profit from their suffering; many do not survive the journey, dying of heat exhaustion in the desert or drowning during the crossing. Boats are not always seaworthy and there is no room on the boat for supplies of food and water. If the engines fail, or the winds are against them, a two day journey can extend into six…
The boats are not officially heading for Malta. Many of those on board envisage a welcome in Italy and through Italy the opportunity to make it across the land into other EU countries. However, if the boat and its illegal cargo gets into trouble in Maltese waters, it is the small, ill-equipped country’s responsibility to come to their aid.
‘Aid’ in this context is a loaded, emotive term. The first part of the process takes place in a detention centre. Malika and I did not get access to witness these places first hand, but many people told us of their experiences. Men spoke of being being held in over-crowded dorm rooms, poor sanitation and food and most horrifically, only getting outside for fresh air, sunlight and exercise for one hour per week. Legally, individuals can be held in detention for one year. If an individual can prove that they require humanitarian assistance – say they are fleeing the war in Somalia for instance – they can be released into an ‘Open Centre’ in a matter of days or weeks (depending on how quickly they can be processed and whether or not they have the correct documentation with them proving their identity.) If it looks like the individual is an Economic Migrant they will often stay in detention for the maximum term.
Those deemed vulnerable are released more quickly – so, unaccompanied children (yes, minors do actually make the journey on their own!) pregnant women, family groups, and those with disabilities are moved from detention into ‘Open Centres’.
With the exception of unaccompanied children, who stay in special accommodation, those in the Open Centres can live there officially for one year. During this time they are given a per diem allowance of 4.33 Euros a day for each adult. Those who are not granted refugee status or humanitarian protection are given less. To receive the payment, individuals must sign on three times a week. If they fail to sign on, money is docked or stopped (dependent on circumstances.)
An Open Centre is one where the residents are free to come and go. They vary in size and the type of accommodation on offer.
The photographs here are some of those taken in the Open Centres. They are not my final edit and in fact are not necessarily ones that will be included at all (it will take me much longer to sort them out!) My intention was to post some here to give you a sense of what life is like in the centres and how individuals cope.
What is very clear to me is that Malta needs help from the rest of the world. The NGOs who run the centres are trying their best, but do not have the resources to provide every person with the sort of accommodation and support that is needed to ensure they can live with dignity. Many of them have suffered in their home countries, have suffered on the journey to Europe and are still suffering now.
It is definitely time that the UK for one offered some form of assistance…
As Malika was focusing on documenting in the Women’s Centre, it was going to be my remit to look at how the families cope with living through the asylum/refugee/immigration process. Initially, I should have been based at the Hal Far Families’ Centre, but problems with a Maltese resident and a very stressed-out co-ordinator made this impossible. I did spend a couple of hours there before having to leave and was horrified by the poor standard of accommodation in the only block I was allowed to see… The second centre was in B’Kara and was very different. The former convent can accommodate up to 16 families or family units (including single mothers or fathers and accompanying children.) ‘The Rainbow’ is used to house the most vulnerable families and is a very secure place: no visitors are allowed on the premises.
Marsa Open Centre
The Marsa Open Centre is for men only. I only spent a couple of hours there on an ‘official tour’. This meant that I was shown the ground floor communal facilities and not the mens’ private living accommodation. What was evident from the visit is that the management at Marsa encourage and facilitate enterprise – the centre includes ‘restaurants’, two barber shops, small stores and stalls. For a nominal rent, if space is available, a man can begin a small business. European money has been spent on providing educational facilities (a well equipped classroom) and a new restaurant (closed due to Ramadan.)
Hal Far Tent Village
On my final day in Malta, I was lucky enough to get into the Tent Village. On concrete platforms stand 43 military style tents, each one ‘home’ to approximately 12 men (although they could accommodate 20.) Four new mobile homes are currently being installed on site – these will house the most vulnerable residents; on the day I visited they became home to two pregnant ladies and their husbands as there was no room for them in any of the other centres.
Each tent is connected to the electricity supply, although residents know to avoid all cooking at once… Toilet facilities, showers and basins are found in a purpose built block. On arrival, residents are given a pillow and a sleeping bag and are allocated a specific bed in a specific tent. Individuals and groups have invested in televisions, satellite dishes, second hand fridges and an interesting array of broken furniture in an effort to make the tents their homes. It is a difficult environment in which to live: roasting hot in the summer and freezing in the winter; the tents leak when it rains and many of the men made sure to tell me how terrible the tent village is. However, on the day I visited it was not a place of despair. The staff are incredibly positive, hard-working and supportive of the residents (as long as they respect one another and the rules) and it was clear that they have good relationships with those in their care.
I have met many extraordinary people over the past two weeks, and some of their stories will be shared elsewhere. But the one phrase that will stick in my mind for a long time to come was offered to me by Mohammed Hassan (formerly of Somalia and now of Hal Far Tent Village,) these three words seem to sum up the experience of all of those who have found themselves in Malta on the way to their ‘freedom’:
‘Hope is Power’.