Károly, Karola
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This is how to keep the migrants captive

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2015.08.31. 12:57

A jeep shot out from the shadow of the port house, it speeded by me, but I did not even have time to get over my surprise, since a taxi followed it with creaking wheels. I only noticed that both cars had Arab number plates, and they disappeared behind the rusty ship cranes. I had not expected this, although a nice woman had, indeed, prepared me on the bus on the way to the refugee camp. I had only asked the names of the stops from her, but she shared with me how hard the migrants made the life of the Maltese. Because, sadly, they are smelly, they drink and fight.

But she did not mention that the refugees would chase each other by car.

In addition, on the spot it did not seem to be an extraordinary situation at the largest open refugee camp of Malta. In the romantically dilapidated port of the town of Marsa, men in Arab clothes leaned against the cordons, and women in chadors were chatting in the shadow of the rusty ships. The area was just as exotic as one imagines such a place, so I grabbed my camera.

A roaring figure interrupted my work. “Get out of the picture!” – commanded a Maltese man in a baseball cap and a multi-pocketed waistcoat. – “And anyway, taking photos of the actors is forbidden.” I was so surprised, I could hardly find words. “What actors? I'm taking photos of the migrants,” – I stammered, and showed him the last few pictures on the LCD. He looked at me as if I was an idiot: “That's what I'm talking about, delete them!”

Looking around, the picture added up. Further figures in multi-pocketed waistcoats were standing in the shade, the jeep and the taxi reappeared at the corner, and the speed pursuit started again; on the opposite side, cameras were rolling.

It would have been an excellent story if it had turned out that there were no refugees in Malta at all, the locals had only misunderstood a film shooting. But reality is not that colourful. The migrants were standing gazing behind the exotic Arab street view. They could be recognised by their non-authentic clothes: they were wearing jeans, shorts, and t-shirts. “They are making a Michael Bay film,” – commented a thin Arab boy from the shadows. “It takes place in Libya,” – he added, grinning. “Only people don't wear this kind of clothes in Libya, this looks more like Egyptian.”

I could not respond with equal ease, since I was disturbed by the merging planes of reality. An American crew built up war-stricken Libya in Malta, the Arab masses were played by European extras, while those who had actually lived through what war-torn Libya was like were laughing in the shade. This situation apparently caused no confusion among the migrants, they had been used to more bizarre things.

 Malta = trap

'I've been living here with my wife and my child without papers for seven years,” – told me Massoud, when I sought shelter behind the crowd in the shady little pub.

“We were lucky, we spent only three months in an enclosed camp, then my wife got pregnant, and we were let out.” The man in his thirties was from Niger, and he was almost jovially discussing the practice that would have made an excellent idea for a film for Michel Bay, who was giving out orders two metres away, if the director had not wanted to shoot a film about islamists but about the obnoxiousness of a European state. That is because migrants are automatically locked behind bars on the island, as we have written in our previous article. But that is only the reception. In the next step, Malta creates such conditions that prevent the migrants from getting out of illegality despite their best intentions. They get irrevocably stuck in the life of the second-rate inhabitants of the island.

Massoud and his family got into an open camp to no avail, they did not become much freer. “I got temporary papers, with which I can work only if the employer registers it in the office that they want to employ me. Of course, it is hard to find a job that way. So far I've been lucky. But, for some reason, they don't prolong documents any more, so this possibility is lost too.” – The man explained this to me with a good command of English, and gave me his permit. “This is valid until 2018,” – I observed optimistically, but he waved his hand: “Only until 2015, look, I've put two little dots here with a felt-tip pen, so the number 5 looks like an 8. That's how I'm trying to work.”

It was a Saturday afternoon; in the dimly lit room of the New Tiger pub the guests were discreetly buzzing. The atmosphere made me feel that I was a naïve journalist in the setting of a Rejtő-novel. The Ethiopian girl tending the bar was making coffee with cardamom, its smell mingled with the smoke of the sheeshas. The only unclear thing was whether the edge of the stories was taken off by the swelter, the Ethiopian pop music coming from the rasping speakers, or apathy.

State-governed black labour

“You can't do anything about it here, they exploit you anyway,” – said a middle-aged man from Togo, when I asked him about job opportunities. “I have been living in Malta for nine years. I work for a small firm, at a construction. They only prolong my temporary status year by year, I don't get permanent papers. They keep us in complete uncertainty. I am at my boss' mercy. I can't go on holiday, I often have to work at weekends too. If I say no, the job is over. And what could I do then?”

You have to be strong. If you are not strong in Malta, you will not stay alive

– he phrased the truth that suited Alaska during the Gold Rush more than a state of the EU.

The grim picture was painted even darker by the leader of Aditus, an NGO dealing with the protection of human rights, whom I talked with some days later. “The Maltese government has been hostile towards the migrants from the beginning. The government forces the migrants into a defenceless state, therefore they must work illegally, under bad circumstances. Many of them do not get paid, and if they complain, they get fired and have nowhere to go.”

Of course, Malta is not hell itself, where, behind the setting of an island of holiday makers, a satanic people lives its life. The Eritrean guy smoking his pipe at the counter came over here from the nearby town to visit his friends. His life seemed to be on the right track: he got work at a mushroom farm, earned 1300 euros a month, and hoped that he would eventually manage to move to America.

A Somalian man told me that a property developer rescued him from his tight situation, when he gave him work and accommodation in his own house.

“Does your girlfriend or wife live there with you?” – I asked. “No, I've got a room for myself at the family, I don't have a girlfriend, but she couldn't come there anyway,” – he said in an uncannily natural manner, like someone who had accepted that people with a dark skin do not deserve family bliss; they have to be grateful for that the master gives them food and work. He has no pastime, he goes home after work, and comes to the New Tiger to meet his friends only at the weekend.

Michael Bay and the fake migrants

Since it was mentioned for the umpteenth time that the pub was the main meeting place of the migrants, I asked: “But then where is that mass of people?” In the room decorated with coffee-brown walls, colourful tiles and pictures of Marilyn Monroe, only a few people were making their sheeshas gurgle. “Just go through here, the side gate,” – indicated the manager, and I entered a world about which Michel Bay, who was withering in the sun, could have made an excellent film even without a script. I did not find myself in a pub, but a four-storey migrant mall.

Two windowless pubs operated on the ground floor: in the room with green footings a man was wilting, and a barmaid was surfing through the channels on the TV hanging on the wall. Farther back, there was a small group standing around two billiard tables; they did not even look up, the balls were quietly clicking on the green cloth. When I climbed the narrow stairs, they guests were looking after me like in a video clip. I was the only white person in the building. A hairdresser's shop operated upstairs, then I found another pub, beside it a little shop that could easily have stood in an Ethiopian village. On the top floor, people were looking at me in surprise from an internet shop and another grocery.

And there was the roof terrace, where large groups of people were watching the filming in the port. The public was friendly, we talked about Libya, then they suggested that I take a look at the basement, because life is maxing out there.

Read our other story on the migration crisis

The dream island, Lampedusa where people could hate immigrants. But why don't they? 

The world of Mad Max does exist: slavery, desert, and war on the route from Africa to Italy

Our journalist crossed the border between Serbia and Hungary illegally, with a group of Afghani migrants. Read the first part. and the 2nd part of our series. 

The lowest level was crammed with billiard tables, people, and smoke. I began to feel as though the Hollywood crew was reality, and I was placed in some film. Seeing my uncertainty a man with dreadlocks and a sleepy gaze extended a cue towards me. I did not want to play billiards, but when he heard I was interested in their life in Malta, he beckoned. “I'm going home now, come, see where I live”

Having been blown up, he rather escaped

An hour-long trip by bus took us to a derelict, weedy place. Living containers were standing on the concrete pad trembling in the heat.This was Hal Far, the other major refugee camp of the island. We walked past an empty sentry box on our way to the container city. There was no romantic element here to divert my attention from reality.

I'm in here most of the time, I rarely go as far as the other camp

– my dreadlocked companion said slumping down on the concrete steps. “I escaped from military service in Eritrea, where people are called in at the age of 18, and they get the price of a hen for a month's work. Some stay there for years. It isn't military service but governmental slavery what we do. But in Malta, nobody cares about our fate. They want us to stay in here, where we are invisible. In the beginning I worked, but now I rather not go out any longer. I don't want to see the hatred in people's eyes. I don't want to experience that they don't respect me. That others get served in the shop but I don't.”

Then it was him who said for the first time what I later heard from more people: “I'd go back to Africa if I could. But I don't even have money enough to move out of the camp.”

Europe does not offer hope

“They don't believe I come from Somalia,” – said a thin, black man sitting in front of his container. It was Ramadan, hours before sunset, and he was wearily waiting for the sun to go down. “I have a wife and a little daughter, I would work, but I can't get papers.” Then he pulled up his trousers and flashed wounds on his leg. “In my village, they wanted me to join a terrorist organisation, but I said no. Then there was an explosion, my father-in-law died, and I got injured. I decided to escape. We have been waiting here for three years to have the verdict on my application.”

Whoever I talked with, I was stricken by a peculiar mixture of apathy and hopelessness.

I'm just ruining my life here

– shook his head Ibrahim from Benghazi. “If I lived in Africa, I could have a family, a wife, a child. Nothing awaits me in Europe: I work if I can, and as long as they let me, then I'll get old and it's over. If I could save two thousand euros, I would leave Malta.”

What does the Maltese government want?

The more people told me about their lives, the less I understood the concept of the Maltese government.

  • They do not give documents to the migrants so that they can move on, but they do not give them rights either, in order that when they are there they could make them work as second-rate citizens.
  • Moreover, the migrants pushed into poverty get stuck on the island for the rest of their lives.
  • This situation is made even worse by the government when, as is known in Hungary too, they officially incite xenophobia.

“Racism against coloured people is especially strong in Malta,” – said Lorna Muscat, an employee of SOS Malta. The official of JRS, a Jesuit organisation, sees the situation in a similar way. “ The government has been pursuing a hard propaganda against migrants until very recently. In 2013 they organised for about 100 Somalian people to be sent back to their country, however the circumstances there are of common knowledge. Our organisation challenged the plan in Strasbourg, so they had to abandon it,” – told Mark Cahia, a monk. He added: “The battering of the Hungarian man with a coloured skin, which happened the other day, is also the result of everyday racism. I'm not surprised by the case.”

According to Neil Falzon, a protector of human rights, the government appears to be distancing itself from the politics of hatred against foreigners. “There hasn't been any programme or law about integration up till now. Now, maybe because they've achieved that no more migrants come here, the legal work preparing for the integration has started after all.”

“The prime minister did publicly apologise for having tried to send the migrants back to the conflict zones two years ago,”– the Jesuit added.

Second-rate people

“How could a humane solution be found for the migrant problem?” – I ventured to counterbalance the distressful stories. In Falzon's opinion, the institution of humanitarian visa should be established. That would mean that those coming from conflict zones could be authorised to enter the EU. (More about this idea in the interview with a migration researcher.)

Read our other story on the migration crisis

Our journalist crossed the border between Serbia and Hungary illegally, with a group of Afghani migrants. Read the first part. and the 2nd part of our series. 

The dream island, Lampedusa where people could hate immigrants. But why don't they? 

The world of Mad Max does exist: slavery, desert, and war on the route from Africa to Italy

This happened later, when hundreds of migrants appeared on the main Hungarian railway stationThey couldn't travel further, so they camp in the middle of the city for weeks.

According to the monk, government-facilitated racism should be abolished. “Many argue that people of different cultures should not settle here. In the meantime, you can buy citizenship here too, if you have some million euros to spend on it. Thus, someone who has recently been a citizen of some African country, can be a politician, or even prime minister here.”

“Foreign workers are only seen as disturbing in our state if they are of a different skin colour. Those coming from European countries represent a larger number that those submitting applications for asylum, but that doesn't disturb people.”

The words of Mark Cachia sounded comforting but idealistic. I recalled what I experienced when, standing among the migrants, I took photos of Michal Bay walking in the filming location.

“Delete those pictures at once!” – attacked me a guard of the shooting. “Why would I? This is a public place, there is no sign saying taking photos is forbidden here. And you aren't police to give orders to me,” – I retorted. The man waved his had angrily, but for want of a better option, he left. “Well done,” – nodded the thin Somalian boy.

“Come on, that's the way it goes in Europe. If you know your rights, and stand up for them, you can't be harmed,” – I answered like a know-it-all. The boy grimaced:

“If it was I to stand up for my rights, this isn't what would have happened, believe me.”