World Refugee Day is an occasion to acknowledge the resilience of people who are left with no choice but to flee in search of safety. This year is also the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, a document just as important now as when it was first written, as it continues to protect displaced people around the world.
Every year on this day we reflect on what it actually means to have to escape, leaving everything behind. It is often a decision taken in a moment of extreme despair and fear; fear of the situation you are fleeing from and fear of the unknown journey ahead. The fact that one in 100 of the world’s population are displaced, shows us that peace and stability are fragile, and that anyone, anywhere, can become a refugee.
This is why we should not just see World Refugee Day as being about ‘other people’. It concerns all of us, not least because it is a recognition of our shared humanity as well as our obligations to protect one another in times of crisis. This is only heightened by COVID-19 which continues to show us how we can only overcome common challenges together.
This year, our focus for World Refugee Day is the power of inclusion. In Malta, inclusion of refugees has come a long way since asylum-seekers started to arrive on Maltese shores in the early 2000’s.
The collaborative process allows refugees and migrants to be actively engaged in shaping policies that affect different aspects of their lives
The country introduced a national strategy for integration in 2017, with the I Belong Programme giving migrants, including refugees, essential language and cultural skills. Even more telling of the move towards inclusive policies, are the migrant-led discussions on key integration issues, organised by the Intercultural and Anti-racism Unit within the Human Rights Directorate, together with the NGO African Media Association.
The collaborative process allows refugees and migrants to be actively engaged in shaping policies that affect different aspects of their lives. This is just one example of a good practice in the country related to integration, and we can see that in other areas, such as employment and education support, public service providers are becoming more refugee-sensitive in their approach.
Recently, we have also welcomed creative initiatives from diverse entities, both in civil society and the private sector. Community theatre Teatru Salesjan, for example, has expanded its scope by organising workshops to empower refugee women. Another ambitious venture is the one recently launched by ROAR, a company that has opened up language and job-seeking support alongside forklift training to boost students’ employability.
While we are encouraged by improvements in some areas of integration, unfortunately there are obstacles that still prevent refugees in Malta from feeling like they belong.
Policy obstacles include the long and difficult path to citizenship for refugees, and the lack of access to family reunification for persons with subsidiary protection, who make up the majority of the refugees in Malta. Separation from family members while not being able to return home means possibly never seeing family again. Many of us have recently learnt the consequences of prolonged separation and how that feels, when COVID-19 has stopped us from seeing our loved ones in other parts of the world.
Inclusion does not just benefit refugees, but also the host community
Another issue that exacerbates marginalisation and vulnerability among refugees is discrimination and discriminatory language. It is commendable that the Government launched its consultation on a National Action Plan against Racism and Xenophobia in 2020. We hope that this will also bring about more awareness about the importance of responsible rhetoric when talking about refugees and migrants, even among public figures and the media.
Refugees tell us that despite more access to opportunities, these obstacles prevent them from fully being able to call Malta home, even after living here and laying down roots.
Inclusion does not just benefit refugees, but also the host community. As all the success stories show, many refugees are self-reliant and thriving, actively contributing to our community and economy. This is also why, as UNHCR has emphasised throughout the pandemic, inclusion must extend to healthcare and vaccination, to ensure safety and protection for all, no matter their status.
This year, UNHCR also marks the 70th anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which apart from protecting refugees from being returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, lays out the foundation for host countries to create an inclusive environment for people seeking asylum. This key document, even 70 years later, continues to guide our work.
Together with our national stakeholders, with our partner organisations, with communities and with refugees, we continue to heal, to learn and to bring about a more welcoming and vibrant world.
Samar Mazloum is the UNHCR Representative to Malta