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Comment: Fieldwork from Europe's racist frontier

The worst thing about Malta is what happens to the lucky ones that survive the boat trip from Libya, says anthropology student, doing fieldwork

I am waiting for the bus outside Hal Far Detention Centre. Located across the street from the military barracks that hosts the detention centre, is the Open Centre, where refugees, asylum seekers, and irregular migrants move when they are released from detention.

There’s more than 40 people waiting for the bus as we get there, and one man tells me that the bus, so far, is half an hour late.

He has been waiting in the rain after visiting the racetrack nearby. “This is not a good place to wait for the bus – especially not when it gets dark,” he says in a British accent. I ask him what he means. “Look behind you,” he nods to the open centre.

‘Lucky’ to get there

He seems to be unaffected by the fact that the people he is warning me against are standing around us. I tell him I do not consider it a dangerous place at all. I have visited friends living there and I enjoy the friendly atmosphere. “You must like them, then!” he says, and turns his back on me.

I am in Malta to do fieldwork for my Master’s dissertation in anthropology. One of the things that have made the biggest impact on me is how the latent – not to speak of the overt – racism is affecting my informants, who are caught in a bureaucratic limbo on the island for years.

“I live on a big boat,” my informant writes in his own English-language book. He does not associate life on a boat with luxury cruises and adventures, but days and nights of drifting around in an unfamiliar element, which does not offer any indication of whether it will let you reach your destination or swallow you up. The worst thing about Malta is what happens to those who are “lucky” and survive the boat trip from Libya.

Thought Europe would offer a better life

My informants, most of whom are also my friends, are rejected asylum seekers. They have all started their stay in Malta with 18 months in detention; they are imprisoned for “security” and “administrational” reasons.

When they get out, they face problems of finding work, a place to live, and making strategies for how they can find a better life. Some of them hope that if they wait long enough, maybe they will get a travel document, so they can move to another country and maybe even visit their families.

Others try going to other European countries with fake documents to try to apply for asylum in countries with different policies, such as Italy, Germany, or the Scandinavian countries.

Prejudice out in the open

Doing so, however, they run the risk of being sent back to Malta to face prison. Despite structural exclusion, my worst experience in Malta has been another aspect of social discrimination than poverty and lack of legal status, i.e. the interpersonal situations in which locals are disregarding and disparaging my informants.

A few weekends ago, I shared a cab home from a bar in the South with three others. Apart from me, two were rejected asylum seekers from west-Africa, and the last one was a friend of theirs, who turned out to be from Denmark like myself.

The cabbie asked me what I was doing in Malta, and I explained to him that I was doing fieldwork with asylum seekers. “There are too many of them,” he stated, and I was quite surprised that he was so insensitive to the fact that two of his passengers were African. “The boat people get a lot of money from us, you know?” The rest of the trip, he kept speaking to me about how immigrants were criminals and came to take Maltese money, jobs, and eventually take over the country.

‘Are we really different?’

Now, I wish I would have asked him to let us out of the cab and to take his indecency someplace else. That night, however, I was not in a mood to fight, or to stand in the middle of nowhere without a cab, for that matter. I tried calmly to explain to him how he was simply proving his own ignorance when he was accusing them of this and that.

As we got out of the cab, I asked Issa, if he was okay. I saw his body get tense and he kicked the wall in rage, then he burst into tears of resignation: “Why do you people think we are different? We are not different from you, why do you think so?” Reality hit, and I was instantly angry with myself that I hadn’t made more of an effort to make the driver shut up.

I put myself in Issa’s shoes, being in a country where many people consider you inferior without knowing anything about you, but the colour of your skin. I tried to reach out to him and explain that I do not consider us different, but he was far away in the pain of being eliminated socially – on this continent, which he had heard was characterised by equality and social rights, and where he hoped to find a brighter future.

Denied social importance

After witnessing episodes like this, I have realised how the psychological effects of the face-to-face encounters with racism in Europe is more harmful to my informants than their struggles to succeed in finding work and asylum.

Racism is not only dangerous as it may lead to violence and structural discrimination: To be denied social importance in a vulnerable and unfamiliar situation as an immigrant in Malta is damaging in itself.

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