Boon, or bane, or what?!

This is definitely one of these stories that slips under everybody’s radar: it takes place in Lampedusa, a small Italian island, does not involve violence and death, and concerns people that no one really cares about – groups of African refugees fleeing from their circumstances.

Just last week, 400 would-be immigrants ended their perilous journey to Europe in Lampedusa. These individuals paid people smugglers $1,000 to cross the Mediterranean. And on Friday, 600 migrants and refugees staged a peaceful protest — around 1,600 people were being kept in a center designed to accomodate 850.

This story is but one example of the enormous obstacles that migrants are faced with when they make the decision to leave their lives behind, in the hope of finding an “El dorado” in a richer country. In Ghana, often, I would speak with people whose understanding of Europe consisted mainly of money trees, jobs galore, and all around perfection. Even assuming that it’s all relative… Clearly, there is a huge misunderstanding, and dealing with the information asymmetry would be a crucial first step to keep these incessant flows of desperate people under control.

It’s quite a conundrum, really – because as much as European (and other Western) countries try to shield themselves from illegal immigration (and regular migration, too – it couldn’t be harder for my French friends to move to the USA), we have to accept the fact that migrants are a genuine economic force. I know I’m not exactly breaking the news here – what with declining birth rates, aging populations and crises of confidence in the “developed” world, it’s been obvious to many, and for a long time, that we need to harness the strength of migrant workers to boost our economies, to revive our countries. Instead, we continue to treat migrants as though they were subhuman — the above story in Lampedusa is repeated ad infinitam.

In Malta, the same sort of welcome awaits those lucky enough to survive the dangerous crossing of the Mediterranean – from the Guardian:

Criticism of Malta’s detention policy is mounting. The island is the only EU nation to automatically detain all illegal migrants for a legal maximum of 18 months: there are currently 2,000 in ramshackle camps. The UNHCR has voiced concerns over whether the policy could violate the Geneva Convention, while other NGOs are urging Malta’s government to soften its attitude to migrants.

The Jesuit Refugee Service – which carries out advocacy work on behalf of migrants – estimates 98% of young migrants do not receive formal education.

About half of the 4,000 migrants who have been released from detention live in two cramped, unsanitary open centres which are effectively African ghettos. They take the low-paid jobs shunned by an increasingly well-educated Maltese population: portering in hotels, working in factories, as refuse collectors or builders. After eight years of migratory flow to Malta, there few signs of social mobility for Africans.

“The result will be a social catastrophe,” says Father Joseph Cassar, of the Jesuit Refugee Service. “In five years I fear we’ll see ghettos, social unrest and a rise of far-right politics.

“What is being forgotten here is that these people come from terrible places and are running from the extremes of human behaviour – torture, rape and violence – and deep poverty. It cannot be right to treat them with contempt, detain or house them in horrible conditions, in Europe.”

Railing rust bleeds down the once whitewashed walls of Marsa, a dilapidated former school converted into an open centre, which is now home to more than 1,200 migrants. They take turns to sleep in bunks and share putrid lavatories and showers.

Interestingly, on the other side of the world, in Japan: “Thousands of youthful, foreign-born factory workers are getting fired, pulling their children out of school and flying back to where they came from […] That situation — the extreme exposure of immigrant families to job loss and their sudden abandonment of Japan — has alarmed the government in Tokyo and pushed it to create programs that would make it easier for jobless immigrants to remain here in a country that has traditionally been wary of foreigners, especially those without work. “

It is quite fascinating to see that one of the world’s richest countries, and also happens to be a traditionally closed society, is among the first to bite the bullet and promote policies which provide incentives (INCENTIVES!) for economic migrants.

“The government’s decision will send a much-needed signal to prospective immigrants around the world that, if they choose to come to Japan to work, they will be treated with consideration, even in hard economic times.

There is a growing sense among Japanese politicians and business leaders that large-scale immigration may be the only way to head off a demographic calamity that seems likely to cripple the world’s second-largest economy.”

So perhaps, once European countries realize that they are essentially shooting themselves in the foot by not harnessing the economic potential of migrants, we will see some changes in policy – but for now, the EU is still obviously figuring out what this will mean in concrete terms. Malta was just awarded 3.7 million euros over 5 years for the integration of migrants – which is great, bravo the EU, but when you read that just the month before, they were granted 122 million euros to “strengthen their borders”, it puts the paltry figure for integration in perspective. (Also, knowing that we’ve been throwing tens of billions of dollars at zombie banks in West on a regular basis makes these numbers look ridiculous, but that’s another story)

Japan’s policy move is interesting, and I wonder if other countries will follow suit. In the mean time, people will continue to put their lives on the line in the hopes of a brighter future… I suppose this will remain a constant – there will always be more people fleeing than room available to welcome them in third countries. And so it goes… But let’s welcome the Japanese initiative as a sign that pragmatism is beginning to punch through the dogmatic straight jacket that holds that “immigrants = bad people”.


Last June, I had the opportunity to work with Pierre Le Tulzo, a young photographer, when The Niapele Project hosted events for World Refugee Day. We displayed some of his work in a small exhibition entitled “Malta’s Castaways“. Through photos and testimonies, Pierre captured the essence of the island. I’ll let you see for yourself -below are some photos (of his work, and of the show at Sciences Po in Paris)

© Pierre Le Tulzo Mustafa, 19 , Somalian. « My dream is to solve all my problems, try to go to another country in Europe, if it is possible. That is why I wake up every morning to try to get some job. First I didn’t want to come here, but fuel problems made us come to Malta, we first wanted to go to Italy. » October 2007. © Pierre Le Tulzo

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