Friday 29 May 2020

Sudden population growth within the confines of an island

This article first appeared in Malta Today

It has became a habit of this Government to repeat the spiel that “the country needs foreign employees to continue its economic growth”.  We have heard this phrase time and again from the Prime Minister, most recently just this week during a Q & A session by the international company BDO which has been described as specialising in giving advice to companies on how to expand their business activities.

But away from slick, fancy presentations and men in suits, the reality on the ground of what this sudden surge in population means for a small island is very different. 

On Tuesday, the demand for electricity reached 510MW, the highest level ever recorded by Enemalta plc, and 15% higher than the last two years according to The Times. The result was widespread power cuts and an interrupted electricity supply in various areas. The reasons have been attributed to the sweltering heatwave as air conditioners and fans were simultaneously switched on, especially in the evening as people returned home.  A justifiably furious populace, suffering in the unbearable heat, demanded to know why we should still be experiencing black outs after all the assurances that we have been given because of the LNG gas tanker, the interconnector and the new power station.  

The official explanation by Enemalta that the interruptions only lasted ten minutes “in 80% of the cases” was contradicted (presumably by the remaining 20%) on my newsfeed who spoke with frustration of spending several hours with no electricity. The general public was also quick to point out that the heatwave alone did not cause the blackout, but was a combination of factors including the voltage required for the Isle of MTV concert, as well as the swell in population in recent years.  The general public is probably right. 

According to EU statistics released this week, Malta has registered the highest population increase in all of the European Union, and by the end of 2018, the figure rose to almost half a million (493,559) – a 3.7% increase from the previous year.  

As the implications of that growth spurt sinks in, let us remember our geography and that we are speaking of a country which is only 27 km long and 14.5 kms wide. One cannot ignore the fact that as more and more people come to live on the island, the strains on the infrastructure, such as the demands on the electricity grid, are bound to be felt.  The number of cars, the noise, the pollution, the packed-to-the gills buses, the sheer physical proximity to each other when you cram so many people into such a small space, is a recipe for disaster. If you love crowds it’s great, but if you yearn for peace and quiet and wide open vistas, your only hope is to head towards the sea and look outwards at the horizon (if you can find anywhere to lay your beach towel that is).  No wonder those who can afford to are buying boats or hopping on a plane every chance they get. 

I know people love to blame all this on our EU membership but I beg to differ. After we joined the EU in 2004 we did not have a sudden surge of people coming here, nor did we have a surge in the years to follow. The gradual population growth was quite manageable because many Maltese also left at the same time. Now, however, the Government is ACTIVELY encouraging the importation of hordes of non-EU nationals to work on the nation-wide (unnecessary) construction sites. It’s a sudden artificial, population growth which has swept the island, and for which there was no long-term planning.  The Prime Minister tried to reassure everyone this week that the influx of foreigners should not be considered a “threat” . I agree, it’s not a threat, it is quite simply madness.

As reported by Malta Today, “The largest share of migrants were third-country nationals, amounting to 9,209 people, followed by EU nationals at 7,349. Net migration of Maltese nationals was estimated at 480.” 

Even though some claim that a lot of the construction workers are only here temporarily, this still begs the question which I keep asking: who are all these new apartments actually FOR? Once they are built, presumably the workers will leave…unless we are going to keep building just to keep giving them work. 

And if the PM is going to keep insisting on this influx, the least the authorities could do is to treat these people with dignity and humanity. Their human rights and safety must be protected and the Government should ensure that they are not being treated like slaves, shoved on top of each other into stifling apartments by callous employers. 

A proper department, which is sometimes known as a Citizens’ Advice Bureau, is needed where all foreign nationals can find a one-stop shop with everything they need to know about settling here: from work permits, to health care, to waste collection and renting a property with the correct ARMS rate.  It should include information about our customs and traditions so that anyone thinking of coming here will be prepared and know what they are going to find.  

In the meantime though, the Prime Minister is being very short-sighting by trying to wave away the rumbles on the ground and the mounting anger of the Maltese people who are now seeing all “foreigners” as an unwelcome intrusion. You cannot just keep explaining and justifying everything by saying, “but, the economy is booming!”  There are some things money just cannot buy. 

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