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Malta: providing refuge for asylum seekers

Jesuit Refugee Service Malta Country Director Dr Katrine Camilleri, left, is interviewed with JRS Cambodia Country Director Sr Denise Coghlan, RSM at on the America This Week radio show on SiriusXM in New York in December. (Christian Fuchs — Jesuit Refugee Service/USA)
Monday, February 22, 2016
(Washington, D.C.) February 22, 2016 — While mainland Europe is just now catching up to the gravity of the Middle East and North African refugee crisis, Dr. Katrine Camilleri, director of Jesuit Refugee Service in Malta, is no stranger to the issue.

Dr. Camilleri and her staff have provided practical service and moral support to the thousands of asylum seekers who have arrived in Malta by boat the past two decades. She has championed the rights of migrants seeking refuge, providing legal advice, organizing visits at detention centers, providing psychological support and facilitating access to healthcare.

A native of the island nation, Dr. Camilleri, a lawyer, came into direct contact with refugees when she began working in a small law firm after graduating from the University of Malta in 1994. She joined JRS Malta in 1996 — first as a volunteer, then part time and eventually full time.

In 2002, when the number of asylum seekers arriving to Malta by boat from North Africa increased sharply, JRS Malta shifted its focus to helping migrants held in the island’s detention centers. JRS still is the only organization to offer professional legal service on a regular basis to these detainees.

Dr. Camilleri activism hasn’t come without a price, as she and her JRS staff in Malta faced a series of violent attacks in 2006 and 2007 for their work. Arsonists set fire to her car and the cars of several Jesuits, presumably retribution for their service to refugees. Yet despite the personal risks, Dr. Camilleri is devoted to expanding JRS services in Malta.

In recognition of her extraordinary service on behalf of refugees and forcibly displaced persons, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees honored her with its prestigious Nansen Refugee Award in 2007. And in December she was awarded the JRS Service Award at the JRS/USA 35th Anniversary Dinner in New York.

Dr. Camilleri recently spoke with JRS/USA about her work in Malta. (Listen to audio of the complete interview below).

Question: What does JRS do in Malta?

Dr. Katrine Camilleri: The bulk of JRS team (in Malta) focuses on providing services. Since 2002, when Malta started receiving growing numbers of people arriving in Malta by boat irregularly from Libya, most of whom applied for asylum, we started to focus on this population. People arriving in Malta by boat will be placed in detention. And because people in detention have very limited access to services and support, at the time when people started arriving in Malta in 2002 there was absolutely nothing. But even today, the services and support that people in detention receive are really very, very limited. So we – in line with JRS’s mandate to go where the need is the greatest and to meet needs not being met by others – focused on asylum seekers in detention …

We also provide legal assistance in a small number of cases, and what we call psychosocial support, which was initially just social work support but today it’s been expanded to include the services of a nurse … And then we also have two psychologists who provide psychologically support to individuals and groups.

As time went by, many people who we meet in detention and who we served in detention started to be released, (so) we started to serve a growing number of people living in the community … where again the support provided is very limited.…

But also in recent years we focused a lot in building the capacity of mainstream service providers – social workers, medical professionals, etc. – to provide a culturally competent service to refugees and asylum seekers. Initially this was quite a bit of a challenge for many service providers in Malta because they were used to dealing with a client group that was mostly Maltese, and maybe North African. So being faced with people from Somali or Eritrea, for them it was completely new. And their first tendency was, call JRS, call another NGO providing a service, maybe they can deal with it. But we started to focus increasingly on supporting them to provide services so that hopefully one day there won’t even be a need for (asylum seekers) to look elsewhere and they can access these services directly …

Another important part of our work is our advocacy. We advocate for, in general, improved treatment for asylum seekers and people who have protection – migrants in general – in Malta. 

Q: When Malta first saw an initial wave of refugees in the early 2000s, there was some resistance. Your car even was set on fire. How do you convince a local community, in Malta or anywhere, that refugees are not threats and that they should be welcomed?

KC: Both before the attacks, and even after and today, there is still within the Maltese community a lot of anxiety around the issue of immigration … I can understand why it creates a certain amount of anxiety and fear. But in a sense the arson attacks were completely out of proportion when compared to this sense, this perhaps understandable sense, of fear. It spoke of hostility and a hatred which you don’t always hear (in Malta) ... It’s quite difficult to combat fear.

When I started to work with JRS one German Jesuit told me, when you start to work with refugees often you find yourself fighting the bogyman. And I think it is a bit something like this. People are faced with this big fear, but they don’t really know who the enemy is, and it somehow effects how they respond to refugees who possibly most need support.

But we find the most effective way of maybe breaking this kind of cycle – of maybe breaking down this wall that people put up to defend themselves because they are so afraid – is by creating spaces where I can see the refugee as a person like me, you know, who is just as afraid as me and who fled because they were afraid and who needs support and who is not a threat to me and my well-being and my way of life … But beyond that I think there is this need for people to meet and see each other as people and look beyond the numbers, look beyond the hype, look beyond this huge bogyman that we’ve created to see the people, to see the person.

Q: In Europe, a major part of some JRS-EU funded projects deal with the best practices to combat racism and xenophobia. Could you talk a little bit about community building and how JRS Malta tries to bring people together?

KC:  I think one important way that we’ve been doing this is with (our) school outreach program. The main aim of this program is to create a space for children in Maltese schools to meet refugees, to understand what it’s like to be a refugee, to listen to their stories and to learn to see refugees as people. What we saw over time is, this is a one-off meeting that does have an impact, it does I think help to change perceptions and challenge stereotypes and prejudices.

What we’re trying to do now is take it a step further and to try to work on building communities and relationships that are a bit less transient, so to speak. So for example we have one program where we’re working together with a group of women, so the aim of this program is to bring together refugee women living in open centers, and women living in other institutional settings in Malta. And our aim is to bring them together, to work together. The program is focused on empowerment for advocacy. So empowering women to understand what their rights are, to be able to identify what for them are their major concerns and to advocate more effectively to actually do something, to get the authorities – or whoever – to do something about these concerns … And we believe that by creating these spaces it’s a very powerful way for people, again, to look beyond the stereotypes, to look beyond the hype and all the negative images that circulate about refugees, especially in a place like Malta, and to get to know each other better and to build lasting relationships …

In Malta what we’re doing in particular is working with Christian groups. It could be parishes, it could be religious communities or Christian prayer groups or whatever, to welcome refugees into their community … Although we’re working with mostly religious communities that will be mostly Catholic in Malta, we’re not focusing only on Christians refugees. I think this is something which is clear from the outset. Many of the refugees who come to Malta seeking protection are in fact Muslim. And in a sense one criteria for participation in this project is that we welcome (everyone), no matter who.

Q: How does JRS Malta work with refugees who have been in Malta for a long-time?

KC: Initially we tended to focus on the initial phase after (asylum seekers) arrive … More recently, we’re working more and more with people who initially wanted to move on (but stayed in Malta). For many refugees, and I think even in terms of how Malta perceives itself, Malta is kind of a transit country, a bit like many countries on the boarders of Europe in fact. Few people who land in Malta and get protection in Malta ever thought that Malta would be their final destination …

But then over time some people come to the realization that no, perhaps moving on is not going to be a possibility. And it’s especially difficult, for example, for families with children who don’t qualify for resettlement, because then “do it yourself” relocation within Europe often doesn’t work because you find yourself in a situation where you don’t have access to status, support, basic rights, etc. So more and more people are coming to this realization that, no, maybe I have to stay. And we felt that this called for more services and support on our part to help people who decide to stay.

We have one specific project which focuses on integration … which looks at helping people who have decided to stay in Malta to kind of develop their own personal integration plan, whether it’s to further their studies or to set up a small business or to whatever, to get a particular kind of job, develop their skills in a particular kind of area. So we help them actually realize that plan by providing more in-depth support, not only in terms of services but maybe even in terms of some kind of grant or special support through mentoring and other kinds of (support). For us it’s a very new project. But it was a gradual development over time and I think it’s where we should be because in a way it’s a need that’s not really being dealt with.

Learn more about JRS Malta by clicking here.