Every year, 20th June is the day the world commemorates the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.
Every year, 20th June is the day the world commemorates the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees. World Refugee Day marks a key moment for the public to show support for families forced to flee conflict and persecution.
Malta has made great strides in recent years in receiving, managing and generally integrating refugees and migrants into the community. The recent integration strategy, launched in December 2017, should be considered a landmark achievement as it marks a significant policy shift towards management and inclusion of refugees and migrants.
The integration policy confirms, firstly, that integration is no longer a taboo subject. This change is highly welcome. It is difficult to address challenges if policy makers refuse to even engage with the term. In this regard, appreciation is due for both policy makers and Maltese society. As the Maltese Islands become more cosmopolitan and prosperous they provide an attractive destination not only for a few days’ visit but also as a place to call home.
Refugees contribute and have a role to play in Malta’s success.
Social inclusion is a two-way process, with the involvement of both locals and refugees. There are numerous success stories of refugees working, contributing through taxes, opening businesses and becoming more socially involved in their communities. Some have settled well in Malta, so much so that they are forming their own organisations to support other refugees. Refugee children are attending schools, learning Maltese and English, and adapting to Maltese culture. It is very likely that if you live in a busy area such as Msida, Gzira, Hamrun or St Paul’s Bay your child may have already befriended a refugee child. A recent Eurobarometer survey reveals that a significant portion of the Maltese population interact with migrants at child care centres, schools or university.
Yet refugees face inherent difficulties that other migrants, who come here for economic reasons or to improve their condition, do not. The most obvious one is that refugees cannot return to their country due to war and persecution. They seek refuge out of necessity, having no other option. States have specific obligations towards refugees based on international conventions, human rights and compassion. Contrary to common myth, refugees are not ‘illegal’ migrants; they do not jump the queue or enter through the backdoor. Making a claim for asylum is their right, and they go through a very thorough process to confirm their claims. Those who are rejected are returned to their country of origin.
States have responsibilities towards asylum seekers who are confirmed as refugees in need of international protection. Beyond the essential rights that should be given to refugees, conditions of integration for refugees who are settling within the country should be established. The earlier the integration process is started, the better, in order to develop and strengthen social cohesion. Furthermore, another condition that will facilitate the inclusion of refugees into their new community is that of access to long-term residence. The issuing of temporary residence documents that require frequent renewal, for people who are likely to remain in the country for the long term, is a counterproductive system that hinders the integration process. It is a known fact that many refugees are finding difficulties in accessing long-term residency because the requirements are strict, especially the resources families are expected to have, or the kind of accommodation required, when taking the current rental market into consideration. Some refugees are even facing unnecessary hurdles in obtaining an ID card, resulting in problems when applying for work permits.
Another major obstacle to integration is the lack of access to family reunification opportunities. As it stands, only individuals with full refugee status are eligible for family reunification while beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, the group which forms the majority of those with international protection in Malta, are not granted this right. This stems from the artificial imposition of the “temporariness” of their situation. Family unity, being able to live as a family with your spouse and children, is a core and basic human right. There are no justifications for such forced separation. If genuine integration is to be achieved for refugees, then this policy needs to be reviewed and replaced with a mechanism that gradually makes beneficiaries of subsidiary protection eligible for family reunification.
Addressing these two points would greatly advance the integration prospects for refugees already living and working in Malta and Gozo.
Social inclusion is a complex topic, comprising different factors. Recent Government initiatives, including policy changes, the improvement of reception and refugee determination processes, and the launch of the national integration strategy, are all positive and commendable steps in the right direction.
UNHCR will remain a solid partner to the Government of Malta and to all stakeholders working on the protection and social inclusion of refugees and migrants, so that together with refugees, we move forward.
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