Tuesday 22 October 2019

The vicious circle of economic migration

This column first appeared in Malta Today

I was at a shop which sells school uniforms a few weeks ago, and of the five customers in the shop, three of them were non-Maltese  parents kitting out their children for the scholastic year. As one of the fathers, an Italian, conversed with his daughter, asking her what items she needed, I couldn’t help but sympathise with how difficult it must be for people to uproot their entire family like this.

It is not easy to move to another country with a strange language and puzzling customs, figuring out where and how to place young children in schools where everything is so bewildering and different to what they are used to.  No one does this kind of thing on a whim, so you can be sure that many of the EU, as well as third country nationals, who continue to come here are only doing so because there is no work for them in their own country.

As far as I know there is no “one stop shop” to help those coming to leave here to explain the basics, and many simply rely on ex-pat groups on Facebook to ask questions after which they have to figure things out as they go along, if they are lucky, with the help of their fellow compatriots. It never ceases to amaze me how many posts I read where people claim they are “coming over to live in Malta in a few months’ time, and how hard is it to find a flat, find a job and settle in?”.  It’s either very naive, very foolhardy, very brave or simply “very millennial” to just hop over to a country like that without having done any homework whatsoever. 

Meanwhile, “Malta Tagħna Biss (Malta Is Only For The Maltese)” announced a new Facebook group which was set up on 30 September and saw 11,500 members join up within one day, with a rallying cry to form a new anti-immigration political party.  Just as quickly it seems to have disappeared and another one opened the next day with the same name, which to date has 2000 members.  Another group called “We want our country back” has 172 members. 

Needless to say, the anti-immigrant sentiment usually refers to African refugees, but as passionate feelings of nationalism continue to increase, the authorities have continued to brush aside these mutinous mutterings which are now being directed at all foreigners, irrespective of where they come from. But they are ignoring this growing resentment at their peril.  I hope the rants I see on FB are just that, rants, because if people really had to act on what they spew on social media, we are heading towards trouble. 

JobsPlus tells us we need 10,000 more foreign workers by next year, a statement which is often echoed by the Prime Minister who has made this formula one of the cornerstones of the economy.  The juxtaposition between these official statements issued at regular intervals, and what is being felt “on the ground” could not be more stark.  It is a parallel universe although no one seems ready to admit it.  Schools cannot cope with all these nationalities lumped together because teachers have not been properly trained for this situation. Our national hospital continues to groan under the pressures of providing health care to all, especially the emergency ward.  Public transport is packed to the gills, and because it is inadequate, newcomers to the island end up buying second hand cars, adding more vehicles on the already congested roads. 

This week, the St Paul’s Bay mayor (one of the areas which has seen a huge influx of foreign residents) has gone on record saying that Malta should leave the Schengen zone because of potential criminals and that it cannot take any more foreigners.  

He is right about the need for better enforcement and not wanting more criminals, for what country would want that? But the Schengen Area allows countries which are members to exchange information on criminals as well as European arrest warrants. Also, surely he must know that St Paul’s Bay has many non-EU residents. As Mayor of an area with such a diverse mixture of cultures any foreign resident reading his comments would feel justifiably uncomfortable about his xenophobic tone which has tarred everyone with the same brush.  And let us not forget how many landlords have made a killing by cramming ten people into a three bedroomed flat, precisely because so many foreign nationals in this area are desperate for accommodation.  Is that not criminal behaviour? 

There are mixed messages coming at us from all sides, and sometimes we spout the mixed messages ourselves. We are quite happy to have more Lidl supermarkets with Italian cashiers and Convenience shops with Indian cashiers, we do not really mind that our rubbish is being collected by Africans or that elderly parents and children are being cared for by Filipinos.  Italian and Sicilian-run cafes give us our much-needed caffeine shots of espresso lungo and latte macchiato every morning as we walk into Valletta, and for plastering and painting our homes we hire Serbians, Syrians, Libyans – basically whoever is ready to do the job.

Now just imagine that all these nationalities had to suddenly disappear tomorrow morning, snatched away by some outside force.  Many supermarkets, shops, bars, cafes and restaurants would be forced to close down, because there would be no one to take their place. Construction would grind to a halt.  I have not mentioned the higher end jobs because everyone seems quite content with the (foreign) Gaming industry, aren’t they?

As the late Anthony Bourdain was quoted as saying: “in two decades as a chef and employer, I never had ONE American kid walk in my door and apply for a dishwashing job, a porter’s position—or even a job as a prep cook. Mexicans do much of the work in this country that Americans, probably, simply won’t do.”

As foreigners continue to be spoken of in disparaging terms, and more FB groups claim they want Malta back, and as the authorities insist we need more foreign workers even though it is clear the infrastructure cannot handle it, I often wonder whether everyone understands the implications of what they really, really want. 

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