Integrate or perish

Despite the challenges posed by a sudden population influx and changing demographics, integration remains the only path to a thriving society.

As the native-born European population dwindles, Europe’s economies are turning to a global labour force. The resulting immigration is transforming the demographics of European cities, making them more cosmopolitan and multicultural.

According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, 5.3% of the Union’s population, or 23.8 million people, were non-EU citizens as of 1st January 2022. In Malta, one in every five legal residents – approximately 100,000 individuals in all – is of non-Maltese nationality.

In this rapidly changing landscape, European, national, regional, and local governments and administrations have a crucial role to play in safeguarding social harmony, ensuring equitable opportunities for all, and promoting the positive values of diversity and inclusion.

In this context, a critical process that encompasses both individual and societal aspects emerges as an essential requirement: integration. How can immigrants gain the knowledge, skills, and cultural comprehension necessary to fully participate in society? At the same time, what is the host community’s role in facilitating integration, therefore averting social tensions and conflict while ensuring it capitalises on the benefits of immigrants’ presence?

Unity, not uniformity

“Malta’s pursuit of integration is driven by a steadfast commitment to fostering a society where all members of the community coexist harmoniously, united by common goals rather than being divided by differences,” says Alex Tortell, Head of the Human Rights Directorate’s Intercultural & Anti-Racism Unit. In a discussion with The Journal, he underscored the distinction between unity and uniformity: “Integration does not imply that we must all become the same. In fact, despite our shared Maltese heritage, our identity has never been monolithic, even when diversity was far less prevalent in our society.”

Alex Tortell, Head of the Human Rights Directorate’s Intercultural & Anti-Racism Unit

After nearly a century of being strictly a country of emigration, the tides have turned rather swiftly since the 1990s, when Malta started hosting migrants from Iraq and the former Yugoslavian states. Due to Malta’s current reliance on immigration to sustain its economy, the presence of a substantial number of third-country nationals in the country is a reality that will persist – unless, that is, any of us would be happy to revert to times when the economy was growing at a much slower rate and let go of the standard of living we have become accustomed to.

Still, while being aware of this reality, several islanders remain wary of the influx of “barranin” (foreigners) and are unreceptive to the notion of integration. The country’s remarkable economic growth, coupled with a rapid increase in population, presented unexpected challenges that were not fully anticipated. Despite these hurdles, there is an opportunity for positive change. Issues such as littering and waste collection, housing sector concerns, and communication challenges among migrants, particularly in English and Maltese, can be addressed through proactive measures and community collaboration. By acknowledging and actively working to overcome these challenges, the nation can pave the way for a more sustainable and inclusive future. Thankfully, there are finally signs of progress in addressing the concerns of the public in this regard, with ongoing efforts to update policies and procedures.

Alex Tortell assures those who genuinely fear that integration will dilute Maltese identity that integration is not a zero-sum game: “The misconception that promoting equality means taking away from some to give to others is unfounded. This fear may be rooted in our insularity and the historical struggle for resources, but it’s based on a flawed premise. In reality, equality means that everyone benefits.”

We are who we are today because we have always been welcoming to newcomers. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans, knights from all over Europe, the French, the British, and others have all left their mark on Maltese culture, as evidenced by the makeup of the Maltese language itself. Furthermore, the fact that Maltese surnames originate from so many different cultures is a testament to the Maltese people’s historic openness to outsiders and their willingness to integrate them into their society.

The only way foward

Despite the challenges posed by a sudden population influx and changing demographics, integration remains the only path to a thriving society, as Alex Tortell rightly asserts. The process of integration and inclusion will undoubtedly encounter obstacles, but ultimately, it will yield the economic, social, and cultural dividends that immigrants bring to the table.

He cautions against making the mistake of grouping all individuals into a single, static category. The 100,000 immigrants residing in Malta are not a homogeneous entity; like us native Maltese, they possess distinct experiences and aspirations. Some hope to work here temporarily and then move on, either to other countries or back to their countries of origin. Others, seeking better opportunities due to limited prospects in their homelands, aspire to permanently settle here. And still others, fleeing strife and seeking refuge, arrived in Malta as their nearest safe haven.

Creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for migrant workers in Malta is not only a fundamental right and a core value that we uphold as a society, but also a sound economic decision. Frequent turnover, whether of highly skilled or other workers, can have a detrimental impact on the economy. So much knowledge and expertise are essentially wasted when workers leave Malta in search of a more welcoming society. Moreover, if Malta acquires a reputation for being unwelcoming, it would discourage talented workers from choosing our country, leading them to pursue opportunities in other competitor nations. This could also, in turn, dissuade new foreign investment.

Everyone needs to be on board

In this context, the approach adopted by the whole of society – Government, the industry, civil society, individuals – is important, says Alex Tortell, stressing that everyone needs to be on board.

He remains hopeful that, despite the disproportionate attention given to the concerns of a vocal minority on social media, the majority of Maltese people are supportive of integration. He acknowledges that many Maltese have interacted with immigrant workers in various settings, including workplaces, shops, restaurants, hospitals, retirement homes, buses, and even local brass bands. Moreover, he points out that the Labour Party’s electoral manifesto for the March 2022 general election explicitly endorsed integration in a section titled ‘A Diverse Society’, and this black on white commitment was met with no controversy. He emphasised that the time for debating whether to integrate immigrants has passed, and the focus has now shifted to implementing effective integration strategies.

“We cannot afford to have separate societies coexisting within our nation,” Alex Tortell asserts. “We need a process that simultaneously enriches our society and addresses our economic needs.” In line with this vision, the government launched the ‘I Belong’ programme five years ago, a resounding success that demonstrated the immigrants’ eagerness to learn Maltese and English, and delve into Maltese culture. These individuals have demonstrated their enthusiasm for these courses, offered by the University of Malta and MCAST, recognising their potential to open doors to new job opportunities and foster better integration into society. With a commitment to inclusivity, the government plans to expand the programme’s reach over the next five years, ensuring that even more immigrants can benefit from its transformative impact.

Second integration policy to be launched shortly

Last June, a consultation process was launched on a Second National Integration Policy and Action Plan, covering the period 2023-2027. The policy and action plan are in the final stages of drafting and will then be launched so that work can begin on the implementation of various measures.

“Our vision is to ensure that all entities and departments across government understand the importance of a more evolved approach towards equality, economic growth, and safer communities,” says Alex Tortell. “These are the three pillars undepinning the new policy. As in every other aspect of life, even in this field, there must be order. Laws, policies, and procedures must be in place to ensure that everyone who lives in Malta is treated equally in all sectors.”

To illustrate the bureaucratic challenges faced in achieving integration, Alex Tortell once again points to the high turnover rate of migrant workers, which is detrimental to both the workers themselves and the industries that employ them. Both migrants and employers express frustration with excessive red tape and lengthy processing times for essential documentation related to employment and residency.

“For how long can a person endure being treated with indifference?” he asks. “If you have made Malta your home and you diligently fulfil your responsibilities, then the country you have chosen to reside in has a moral obligation to treat you with respect and consideration. If you are making a genuine contribution to the country’s growth, it cannot relegate you to the status of a second-class worker or resident. It is the country’s duty to also prioritise your well-being in other aspects of life, such as housing. In this regards, the proposed legislative changes are a step in the right direction.”

The new integration policy and action plan will be structured around seven key policy areas, each with a dedicated set of actionable steps ranging from providing holistic and improved integration programmes to more labour market integration and civic engagement, amongst others.

Achieving successful integration will pave the way for a more prosperous future for Malta, a nation with a remarkable potential to become a beacon of inclusivity and harmony in a world characterised by both interconnectedness and fragility.

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