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GUEST POST: When It Comes To Racism, Malta Should Learn Lessons From Its Past

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If you are Maltese and feeling outraged at the racial injustice in the USA, remember justice still needs to be served at home as well.

If you are Maltese (or not Maltese but familiar with British imperialism) you will know that historically we were colonized, oppressed and considered less worthy of the same basic human rights as the British.

Beyond our own shores, we were looked down upon as an inferior race.

The 1901 Immigrations Restrictions Act in Australia listed the Maltese as a prohibited group and refused them the right to land. In Steve Garner’s 2007 book ‘Whiteness: An Introduction’ he explains that Maltese were ‘Latins’ positioned below Anglo-Saxons, Alpine and Nordic peoples, even when they had British passports. Likewise, in 1910, Canadian officials refused to accept Maltese emigrants. Sanko’s research on Maltese Immigrants in Detroit and Torronto identifies that the only type of Maltese individual that experienced any success in emigrating to Canada were the white, Malta-born English, or the “Britisher Maltese.”

The individuals who appeared as “Britishers in the Island of Malta” and communicated in English were welcomed, while other Maltese faced restriction. Sanko explains that ‘despite the apparent free market for labour, British citizens each held, in reality, different levels of citizenship’.

Although they rarely admit to seeing eye to eye, in their 1962 electoral manifestos both our political parties agreed on the fact that they no longer wished for Maltese rights to remain at the mercy of foreign powers – Labour argued that ‘under Colonialism our existence is no different from the one inside a tomb where worms flourish in the dampness and fetid air’ and the Nationalists concurred that ‘all that awaits colonialism is its burial’.

After the arduous struggle for self-determination, do you think everyone was keen to lend Malta a hand?

Post-independence, Malta sought assistance from France, Italy, Algeria and Libya to stand on her own two feet. The French outright rejected the proposal, Algeria was occupied by its own political crisis, and only Libya answered Malta’s call. And later, it was only as a result of the close relationship with Libya that Italy and the Western NATO states stepped up. It was our Southern neighbours who funded us through the crucible of our independence.

We are quick to forget this and to avert our eyes as our closest Southern neighbour has dissolved into civil war and chaos.

And, certainly, joining the European Union was the right decision for long-term security, but it was not just an economic decision. In ideological terms, accession would also situate Malta – with our Semitic language, Asian and African partnership agreements, and a geostrategic location hovering uncertainly between Europe and North Africa – firmly in the Western community. In the 2014 book ‘Mediterranean Racisms: Connections and Complexities in the Racialization of the Mediterranean Region’ Ian Law says Malta underwent a type of ‘racial promotion’ through EU accession in 2004.

Our values are well situated in this Union, and prior to accession even Pope John Paul II had declared that ‘Europe needs Malta’s faithful witness’. But our strength lies not in rejecting our Mediterranean culture – it lies in us serving as an interlocutor between the North and South, West and East.

Yet so desperate are we to eschew that which once caused others to think of us as inferior, that like the child that has been bullied, who grows up to be a bully himself, we have allowed racism to fester across our country.

We fought and died to become the custodians of our own fundamental freedoms, and in turn we deny these rights to others. In a report on ‘Racism and Related Discriminatory Practices in Malta’ John Paul Gauci explains that migrants (particularly those arriving from Libya to seek asylum) are perceived in Malta as arrogant, criminal, having no respect for the rule of law, mistreating women and being intent on taking Maltese people’s jobs.

Because of this, migrants and refugees struggle to integrate and make a home in Malta owing to prevalent discriminatory and racist attitudes among the population, and negative political rhetoric on the subject of migration.

The 2019 Eurobarometer survey revealed that 63% of Maltese respondents still consider migration the top concern of the European Union. In 2018, the ‘Being Black in the EU survey’ of the EU’s agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) reported that at least 20% of respondents in Malta had experienced some form of racial harassment in the five years before the survey.

Migrants in Malta face harsh detention conditions, and upon release, discrimination in employment and housing. Malta has had at least four far-right anti-immigrant political groups – whom I will not name as I do not want to offer them any promotion.

They all espouse fascist, anti-Semitic and ultra-nationalist rhetoric. There have been calls for boycotts of blood donation for irregular migrants, on the grounds that it would be ‘wasted’ on them. There have been calls to sink the boats of migrants before they arrive.

In 2019 two Maltese soldiers – tasked with the protection of the civilian population – were arraigned over the murder of a migrant from the Ivory Coast in Malta. Lassana Cisse Souleymane was shot dead by the soldiers as he was walking home in the south of Malta.

This is believed to be Malta’s first racially motivated murder, and sixty NGOs and rights groups have since issued a statement to say that the case should be a ‘wake up call’ about what happens when racism is allowed to fester without consequence. Politically, this case has cast doubt on the capacity of the Maltese army – responsible for the rescue of Europe-bound migrants in distress at sea – to carry out their duties.

As the tenth smallest country in the world, and one of the most densely populated, the EU certainly needs to step up its wholly unsatisfactory relocation efforts. And relocation is not enough; it is the symptom not the cause. The crisis in Libya must be given far more attention. As Warsan Shire so beautifully wrote, ‘no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark…no one puts children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land’. But at home, we all need to play our part as well.

If you are angry about the injustice in the USA, get angry about the injustice at home. Mobilize, demand justice for Lassana and other victims of racial injustice, do your bit to foster a more tolerant and inclusive domestic culture; and support local organisations fighting for justice & migrant rights like aditusIntegra FoundationJesuit Refugee Service MaltaSOS MaltaKopin MaltaThe Daphne Caruana Galizia Foundation , Moviment GraffittiThe People for Change FoundationMigrant Women Association Malta and Reppublika.

Our ancestors knew the weight of oppression; they did not sacrifice for us to be the ones to continue this cycle of systemic violence. EU officials, politicians, citizens, neighbours – we all need to do better.

Lovin Malta is open to external contributions that are well written and thought-provoking. If you would like your commentary to be featured as a guest post, please write to hello@lovinmalta.com and add Guest Post in the subject line. Contributions are subject to editing and do not necessarily represent Lovin Malta’s views.

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