The African asylum seekers stuck in limbo in Malta

A man uses his mobile phone as he sits on a dock in Valletta harbour, Malta on 2 February 2017. (AP/Gregorio Borgia)

“I didn’t come here to be rich or to have money…because when you are safe, your life is safe,” says Sarjo Cham, 24, as he reflects on his long journey from west Africa to Malta during a short break between his work and part-time studies at a local further education college. Fluent in English and studying for a degree in marketing, he is better off than most rejected asylum seekers in Malta, and yet his legal uncertainty combined with the discriminatory treatment and petty micro-aggressions he faces prevents Sarjo from being able move forward with his life.

Rather uniquely in the European Union, Malta allows any person who has been through the asylum process to work – even if their application has been rejected. Its universal healthcare and free public education until the age of 16 helps alleviate some of the issues asylum seekers face elsewhere. For a year, which is usually enough to process their case, asylum seekers can live in institutional housing. After that, they are forced to navigate Malta’s difficult rental market on their own, with only those in possession of a refugee status being eligible for social housing or rent subsidies.

Looking for work also proves difficult, and many accept informal job offers. Despite the fact that his asylum application has been rejected, Sarjo, for example, can work in Malta as long as he has an employer who is willing to apply for a work visa on his behalf. However, this is a process that needs to be repeated every three months until, presumably, the migrant leaves voluntarily or is deported.

The latter is unlikely for hundreds of rejected asylum seekers due to Malta’s lack of diplomatic relations in sub-Saharan Africa and the non-cooperation of local bureaucracies. While the largest number of asylum claims in Malta come fromcitizens of Syria, Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and Iraq, there are many asylum seekers that come from countries whose citizens are not considered in need of protection, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the most recent data from 2016, Malta received 1,928 applicants for international protection and 243 earlier asylum applications ended in rejection; however, only 14 people were deported. In 2008, as many as 1,281 applicants received a negative decision. This means they have a pending repatriation order and can be sent back at any point. There is the option of appeal, but after this is exhausted, as in Sarjo’s case, the decision is final.

Rejected asylum seekers must pay non-EU fees for their education and have little chance of regularising their situation, even after many years of living, working and paying taxes in Malta. According to JobsPlus, the state employment agency, 173 refugees, 1,020 recipients of other forms of protection and 638 asylum seekers were working legally as of December 2016.

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Sarjo’s feelings about his life in the Mediterranean archipelago are as lukewarm as the winter breeze in the seaside resort where he lives and works. In 2012, he fled his native Guinea Bissau, a country with one of the lowest human development index and GDP values in the world, when the country was plunged into a military coup, the constitution was suspended, and powerful Latin American drug dealers enjoyed impunity. He made his way to Europe via war-torn Libya and finally arrived in Malta in 2013.

Yet, despite working and paying taxes in Malta, Sarjo will not accumulate pension or unemployment benefits. With no official documents, he is not allowed to open a bank account so after tax deductions, he is paid in cash. And despite having enough money to support himself, Sarjo finds himself unable to enjoy a full social life.

The chef and marketing student shows his only ID – a police record on a yellow piece of paper that he received when he first registered as an asylum seeker in Malta. This is the document he uses for dealing with Maltese authorities. “Without the Maltese ID you cannot go into clubs. Because when they see you, they see your [skin] colour first of all. They say, ‘He could be a migrant, he could be this, he could be that, where is your ID?’ It’s better for me to stay away.”

Automatic detention

When Sarjo first arrived in Malta five years ago, it still had a policy of automatic detention for irregular migrants and asylum seekers. As a result, Sarjo spent nine months in prison. But following policy changes in 2014, automatic detention was scrapped altogether in 2016 to comply with EU directives. Asylum seekers are now placed in institutional housing and are free to move within the country.

“[It] is good to persuade [migrants] that they have to go back home…it’s good that they contact their relatives and say, ‘Listen, don’t come to Malta because it’s terrible here,’” a senior official at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs told Oxford University researcher Cetta Mainwaring back in 2009. This kind of attitude has helped shape popular perception of migrants. Migrants and asylum seekers are widely considered a security threat amongst the general public and this is reflected in the current government’s recent attempts toallow pushbacks at sea.

Mainwaring and other researchers have pointed out that most migrants do not have the luxury of planning and choosing the path of their journey to Europe. Although Malta now has an integration policy for migrants, equality bodies warnthat socio-economic obstacles and poor social inclusion continue to take their toll on migrants and asylum seekers, who receive no help to deal with the trauma of whatever made them flee their home countries or their perilous journeys to safety.

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A recent survey of 72 migrant households conducted by the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Aditus Foundation, found that only around a quarter of heads of household are employed full-time, and the average household income in the sample was below Malta’s poverty threshold of €7,672 (approximately US$9340) per year. Almost a third could not afford to keep their home warm in winter, and a half complained of lack of space in their accommodation. Local media have reported on African migrants pushed to live in garages due to racial discrimination from landlords.

Régine Psaila, who runs the Migrant Skills Register – a non-profit job-matching service targeting African migrants – struggles to keep her spirits high.

“Today I can say that out of 30 people that we placed, we have around five still in employment. The rest left – that is the life of asylum seekers in Malta. They don’t stay very long, there is a lot of precarity.”

Her database has almost 300 hopeful applicants and numerous interested employers, but the lack of trust stands in the way on both sides.

“The employer will tell you they don’t speak the language, they don’t have skills…they don’t have job ethics, they come late, they don’t show up, you cannot rely on them. Jobseekers tell you they are not paid what they were told, or they are downgraded. One is hired as a plasterer, and told to carry stones, to do dirty jobs. They are not respected.”

Meanwhile, the government claims that over 30,000 new migrant workers from other European countries should be brought in to help the booming Maltese economy fill its labour shortages.

African men can be seen on nearly all of Malta’s mushrooming construction sites, and the tourism industry recruits women into cleaning jobs. African migrants can also be found working in agriculture, refuse collection and other low-paid, low-skilled jobs. “The little money they have, they will always set some aside [for remittances],” Psaila observes.

Sarjo uneasily contemplates whether it might be better to return home. During his time in Malta, Guinea Bissau has restored democracy, and in The Gambia where Sarjo’s family live, Yahya Jammeh’s dictatorship has fallen. But going back would not be easy either for Sarjo.

“You are in a different culture, you are in a different environment, so that alone attaches you to a system, which is totally different from where you come from. But when they deny you [the right to stay] and keep on mistreating you, finally you’re forced to retreat and go back there. But being reintegrated again with that society, it also takes time.”

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