by David Johansson
Getting around and enjoying the EU’s smallest member state is easy due to the common use of English and a truly dazzling summer vibe this season of the year. For not only birds migrate to the Maltese Islands, but numerous tourists and expats travel and reside here too. Its current EU Council Presidency has however put the nation into the political spotlight besides the official EU agenda. Recently the Malta Files were revealed by the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC). Beyond realities of polished yachts and a successful image as ‘one of Europe’s most tolerant countries’ lurk speculations of political corruption, linkages to Italian mafia and allegations of a system that is serving as a tax evasion haven for thousands of foreign individuals. Another topic that could possibly benefit from the scrutiny posed around the EU Council Presidency is the current situation for migrants. Project Awaiting went to see how people outside one of the Open Centers for migrants were living and socialising during the busy months of international presence.
Near the capital Valletta, an old shipyard town called Marsa is situated in between the motorway and spacious industrial buildings. It is also where one of the Open Centers for migrants has been located for some years. Not yet knowing the scope of the Malta Files unveilings by EIC, far from all overstayers in Malta are subject to thrive on a tax rebate privilege. One of the marginalised groups are the Middle Eastern and African migrants. In comparison to the economic migrants from Europe these men (because generally there are just men) are less likely to meet you in the tourism services, or as customer services for betting firms in St Julians. Neither are they given much public attention on their own terms. A visit to Marsa’s Open Center for migrants changed my understanding of the ‘migration crisis’ on the Islands.
According to local lawyer, Neil Falzon, Marsa’s previously strong reputation as a kind of red-light district still brings about some uglier sides of island life. Higher rates of drug abuse and dealing, but also poverty are prevalent. Nonetheless, this is where the government decided to place an Open Center for asylum seekers and refugees a few years back. This was a controversial choice which wasn’t well received by Maltese NGOs (like aditus foundation), nor the public.
Marsa Stories (1): New Tiger Bar
The journey to Marsa takes more than an hour from the densely inhabited and commercial parts of Spinola Bay and St Julians. Getting off at ’Moro’, the nearest bus stop in the area, then following a triangle-shaped green in between the crossing roads soon reveals a shipyard and faded warehouse exteriors. Supposedly the gentle and sunny afternoon light played its part in appearing warm and welcoming. What appears as an old pump station and some abandoned cargo ships are situated along the water-courses’ sides. A gate into the backyard of the Open Center is reflected on the surface, while some uniformed men glare passively at the men passing in and out of the compound.
“Hello man, what do you want? Hashish?” a pushy guy tells me as I encounter New Tiger Bar on the grounds. The small kiosk-like bar just around the corner from Marsa’s Open Center is a vivid place this afternoon. A few men are standing or sitting outside. Chatting, or in silence. An old man is putting some chicken on the grill to sell from his stall. In the background the music is streaming out loudly from the bar. Located on the ground floor of a blueish building, the site reminds one of a saloon in any given Clint Eastwood movie, and from one of the upper floors, a woman is heard calling for someone.
”No, thanks, I’m fine,” I hear myself reply. “What do you want? Are you looking for someone?” the pushy one continues.
The Open Centre in Marsa is one of eight open centers for migrants who seek asylum, are awaiting renewal of some status or endure international protection in Malta. Since October 2016 the one in Marsa is completely cared for by The Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS), a governmental agency. In practice what this means for visitors or access for journalists is that admission has be determined by AWAS at least 24hrs in advance and you must apply by email. Requests are not always answered, nor approved. Placing the center in the heart of a notorious area wasn’t undisputed by civil society. “The red-light district in Marsa was quite serious. It was famous for teenage prostitution. And trans-prostitution. It was quite a drug abusive area related to all of that. So when the government placed the Open Center there, we were very worried. That obviously, it was going to fuel even more the difficult situation in the area,” locally conversant Neil Falzon says. “The government said it was the only space they had. That’s what we were told!” he explains as a moment of pensive silence follows.
“My name is Walid, where are you from? Italy? Want to grab a drink, come inside and have a look… I can show you to the bar!” Walid – an African guy, acting more relaxed than ‘the pushy one’ – had now welcomed me. Perhaps simply because of his not-so-pushy approach I decided to follow his advise. Inside the music was pounding out loud. There were two bartenders working. “Can I have a Coke, please?” I said, and “Do you have change?” as I handed over my 20€ bill, unsure whether they would accept my cash bill or not. Then a guy from the computer keyboard next to the desk abruptly interrupts the music from the speaker system, and brings on a YouTube-clip. A song from 2Pac’s “All Eyez on Me” album… Without an audible word, the bartenders give me my change. The reputation as a problem area obviously still makes up noticeable challenges owing to the vicinity.
Refugees and asylum seekers, mainly from West African countries, Somalia, and Libya are residing here at the center. They are offered a roof over their heads and some basic amenities while awaiting better opportunities on the Islands or elsewhere. One Pakistani man I meet outside the main entrance seems disappointed: “Europe is not the paradise I dreamt of. I came here when I was 21 with high expectations. I lived in Norway for six years, I had some difficulties there too with employers who didn’t pay me, but I enjoyed life. As the government found me without a working permit I was put in detention right away, and then I was deported back to Italy. No I’m banned to go back to Norway for some time, and they sent me to Italy since it was the first country I arrived to in Europe. My life in Europe has turned out to be such a struggle you know? I’m thankful to have a working permit, job and being able to travel freely here but… I miss my home nowadays,” Ali says (not his real name because of private reasons). “Hadn’t it been for being caught in Norway, I would still spend my life there, but after all these years of struggle in Europe it’s not enjoyable anymore. And I miss my daughter – all I want to do now is to save some money for a one-way-ticket home!” Ali says while sharing something looking like a cigarette with his friends who are now sitting next to us on the wall next to the conduit. “Look at that guy!” he says while shaking his head dismissively. A tall guy, probably a resident here, is walking aimlessly on the road in front of us. Seemingly ill or high, he gives a strikingly hollow impression. “Heroin?” I ask about him to Ali. “No, no, no! It’s the government here, they gave him an injection to calm him down. And now he’s suffering from a psychosis since some days back,” he rebukes. “It’s not like in Scandinavia here…” Ali continues. “If someone causes trouble here, or is too noisy, the authorities may take him to a mental hospital where they give those sedative injections!”
A couple of days later, an ambulance with its blinking blue lights on arrives outside the New Tiger Bar. I’m watching it from across the street as it stops just in front of the street corner. A few minutes later, a stretcher carrying a motionless man is brought out from the bar by the ambulance personnel. The scene is however not overly dramatic. When a Pulizija [local police] car soon arrives it appears more like they want to make sure that everything is under control. After exchanging a few words, both the ambulance and police cars leave calmly. Curious to find out what had led to the man being picked up by the ambulance, I approached some of the spectators closer to the site. “Some guy just had too much smoke, you know,” a man presumably a regular to the site bluntly replies.
“I actually stay inside the Open Center now” Ali says just as I am about to leave. “It was too expensive to rent an apartment by my own. So I went back to Block C, and the office there helped me to get housing here at the Open Center again.” he confesses. “The friend I told you about, who had just arrived from Italy and who didn’t have his own place? Well he shares it with me here“ Ali says and points to the center behind him. He’d just a few minutes ago explained about a friend who he lets stay over at “his” apartment.
A bit confounded about Ali’s sudden change of story, I sense a feeling of shame or sensitivity on his part regarding his current living conditions. But for who? His own expectations or of his fellow countrymen’s? Or perhaps even a fear of judgment in the eyes of other Europeans?
Marsa Stories (2): Hummus and homeless
On the other side of the bridge crossing the shipyard’s conduit is what looks like another meeting point. The numerous visitors, joyfully chattering among the red parasols outside, unite despite the grey and rainy day. “The Tavern” is crowded with male visitors inside who are immersed with board games, watching sports on the TV, or playing pool. The only woman around is taking orders from the customers at the till.
A group of men gathered by the plastic tables and chairs outside predetermine my interactions. “Where are you from?” one happy-looking guy says. Acting familiar to the other men, he chats and greats others notably well-acquainted around the Tavern. “Germany?” he says. “I lived in Germany for one year when I went to high school, just before coming here,” the guy soon to be known as Timo (pictured above) continues.
‘Timo’ is a Somali word for hair. Upon Timo’s arrival as a refugee to Malta, he had big hair and thus he got his nickname among the Somali community here. Describing willingly where his everyday life is concentrated around the neighbourhood close to Birkirkara, he borrows a pen and paper to illustrate it as he speaks. He describes how he shares an apartment with three other Somalis and that he works as a helper when he’s not socialising here. “These are some apartment buildings on the same street where I live…and over here [sketches a rectangular square in one of the corners] is a football playground,” Timo says. “We only play with the Somali community around, there are not many locals involved,” he says and doesn’t express any further hope of blending in to society. “We are hummus and homeless!” he scorns and explains how the expression means that there is “no future” for them on Malta. “Before I came to Europe I wanted to become a doctor, but I have given up on that dream. I am 25 years old, and I’ve been on Malta for five years. I speak English, Arabic and some German apart from Somali. But still there hasn’t been any other opportunities opening up for me as a Somali guy around here,” he says and puts away the pen and sketchbook. “So, are you trying to become an artist?” he continues as I start sketching his portrait. “No, I’m using the drawings as a way to do interviews,” I say. Timo looks skeptical. “But shouldn’t you be taking notes all the time then, like typing on a computer?”
Abdullah Yusuf, whose name is a moniker because he doesn’t like the publicity, is less outspoken. Also from Somalia, Yusuf acts more cautious under the parasols on this grey Thursday afternoon. His reversed, black, baseball cap, a black/white chequered shirt and loosely hanging earphones gives a hip and street style-conscious impression. “I travelled from South Sudan up towards and through the Sahara desert to Libya before I arrived by boat here,” he says hesitantly. “I feel bad when I talk about my experiences from the last five years, so I usually don’t…” Yusuf has experienced more pain than he feels ready to recall. Before arriving to Europe he went to the university one year in Juba, the capital of South Sudan, and dreamt of going to the US. When fights broke out they had to flee. “They decided to go after us, and I couldn’t go back to the even poorer conditions in Somalia, so I didn’t have any other choice,” he says. Truth be told, Yusuf looks much older than his 21 years. “The life I’ve lived, it’s been rough… So I’ve aged quickly since I fled to Europe,” he replies. “At least if there was hope [here]… There’s no hope! And if you are lonely, you will not make it on Malta,” Yusuf explains while a troubled look in his eyes wanders among the community in sight.
Back at the entrance of the Open Center the uniformed gateman is busy sorting things behind the window. A couple of minutes waiting later, then ‘the Gateman’ (looking like of a mature age) with a huge, but well-trimmed, moustache shows up: “How can I help you?” he asks. “I was just wondering whether I could get inside and talk to the migrants…?” I say. “I see, you want to come inside, to ask them what? Hold on a second,” he says and goes to get something from inside his booth. “This is an Open Center for the residents only, but you can call the number of the one in charge at AWAS. She can accredit your admission here, because I do not have the permission ” the Gateman dutifully says, while handing over a stale business card. Meanwhile, he continues talking, seemingly content with just getting attention from an outsider to his responsibilities. “I used to work for the police You know, and I even went on a special mission to Libya once. So I have seen the migrants on the ground there,” he says. “I’d say you should believe only 30% of their stories. The rest is made up for some reason or the other,” the Gateman states. “But call AWAS, they can give you the go, okay?”
Abdullah Yusuf eventually looks at me, but still appearing a bit anxious as he speaks. “They pay us €4.20 an hour for a normal job. And that makes a maximum of €500-600 a month, which is barely enough to pay your rent in a shared apartment and to have enough to buy food for,” he explains with a reasoning similar to other migrants that I’ve met here.
Timo, Yusuf and other migrants in Marsa subsist on a scarce livelihood and even the attention from their everyday acquaintanceship seems low. And how could it be any different when a person like the Gateman, who allegedly has worked with asylum seekers and refugees for a number of years, still believes that he ‘knows them all’? What is the image that he transmits to those around him who don’t even have an opportunity to make up their own mind on migration, and are even less likely to build everyday relationships with them?
As I went on from Marsa that afternoon I could still hear a voice echoing in the back of my head: “At least if there was hope [here]… There’s no hope!” ▪️