Although they are uniformly referred to as “foreigners”, foreign nationals receive contrasting treatment, depending on their social status and nationality.
by Raisa Galea
Collage: Charlene Galea
According to a recent Malta Today survey, 15.5% of a total of 501 respondents are concerned about ‘foreigners living in Malta’ and ‘illegal immigration’, making issues related to foreigners the second highest concern after traffic.
The results of the survey lead to more questions than insights. What are the causes for the reported concerns about foreigners living in Malta? Could it be that these concerns respond to gentrification and the unregulated housing market, partially caused by the presence of new customers? Also, do all foreigners belong to the same category and have the equal power to negatively influence Malta’s housing market?
It goes without saying that not all foreigners are the same kettle of fish. It is customary for foreign nationals to be labelled as ‘global citizens’, ‘expats’, ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’, depending on their economic status or the status of their country of origin.
In a nutshell, the terms expat and migrant echo the profound class and racial inequalities which are still present in the world. Expat is usually reserved for individuals from the EU&Co., North America and Australia who left their native country to work in a multinational company or for leisure. Global citizen describes the specific, most privileged kind of expat, who sees the world “without borders” because they literally do not exist for him. The advantages of his golden passport and the financial assets spare him from the humiliating struggles for the freedom of movement.
A migrant, on the other hand, is everyone else who leaves his place of birth in search of a better life. He only aspires to become a global citizen because his opportunities for resettlement are institutionally restricted. Finally, a refugee is the most disadvantaged kind of arrival: his resettlement is not driven by the free will but is forced upon him by war, natural disasters and/or extreme poverty.
Global citizens, expats, migrants and refugees do not receive equal treatment. In fact, they are treated accordingly to their status: where a wealthy expat is greeted with open arms, a migrant finds endless bureaucracy and a refugee—a barbed wire.
While some expats bathe in public attention, homeless migrants die in poverty. Their death is reported in plain and casual manner: four sentences-short articles announced that one migrant was found dead under the bridge and the other—in a games room at Xatt il-Mollijiet in Marsa. Both Somali men came from afar only to find their lonely death in Malta. They left their native countries hoping for a better life, but poverty did not leave them until the very end.
Refugees, especially refugee children, are the most vulnerable group of all foreigners due to the uncertainties of their legal status and severe material deprivation. The absence of a refugee legal status prevents refugees from receiving benefits and having access to free healthcare. This precariousness took the life of a 7-year-old Nigerian girl.
A refugee finds more and more doors shutting before him: the promises to deport refugees are at the core of political agenda in several European countries. While refugees and migrants constantly live in fear of deportation and repercussions, a wealthy global citizen is treated with supreme reverence and exclusive offers (such as an offer of a Maltese passport, if he happens to need one).
Just like the native Maltese, expats and migrants often complain about the treatment they receive in Malta, but they do so in a different manner and for different reasons. Whereas the migrant’s complaints are the cries of distress, those of a privileged expat are a means of stating his superiority over the locals and morally instructing them. When an expat complains about Malta, he implies that this (‘backwards’, ‘developing’ or even ‘third-world’) country fails to meet his high expectations and the standard of living he’s used to. As a migrant, I could not but complain about dehumanising bureaucracy that obtaining of a residence permit involved. Anyone is likely to derail after having to battle for their rights on a day-to-day basis—the difficulty that a wealthy expat is spared from, yet seems blissfully unaware of his privilege. Moreover, some expats complain about the presence of migrants and refugees in Malta.
The global citizen has the whole world to cater for his demands. Nobody expects him to ‘integrate’ in Malta since his presence already seems like a blessing. Yet, ‘concerns on integration’ immediately surface when migrants and refugees happen to pursue their cultural habits. Moreover, they are constantly facing the blame for being a threat to the Maltese ‘national identity’.
Migrants are visible because they are part of the crowd. A crime committed by a migrant immediately causes outrage and quickly leads to an anti-migration protest. Though much more grave, the crimes of a global citizen are invisible to the majority. These crimes are executed in an elegant, quiet manner: tax evasion, tax avoidance and dubious business investments to mention a few.
Sadly, the crimes of a global citizen are legalised. He prides his intelligence for tax avoidance and that is why he specifically chooses Malta: to save money and enjoy sun. Although a global citizen pretends to be a charitable philanthropist, the facts prove the opposite: the recent research has established that the wealthy investors extract more profit from the poorer countries than vice versa. In other words, they set foot in a country to take—not give—benefits. Thus, the economic activity of a global citizen is the driver of global inequality and injustice that force persons from economically disadvantaged regions to leave their homes behind and to become migrants and refugees.
Despite their profound differences, the roles of a global citizen, an expat, a migrant and a refugee are all defined by global neoliberalism. Whereas a global citizen is its supreme benefactor and an expat is its agent, a migrant and a refugee are its victims. Another common denominator of all foreigners is that their value is determined by their contribution to the national economy. Whereas the poorer kinds of foreigners, as Joseph Muscat expressed in his statement, should be tolerated because they “do certain kinds of work” that “[Maltese] children are not going to [do]”, the global citizens are welcome if they pour in the money in form of direct investment.
Hence, here is the question: if the physical presence of foreigners in Malta truly concerns the Maltese, which kind of foreigners are they concerned about—the servants or the masters? However, if it is gentrification and the unregulated housing sector that concerns them most, the list of the true perpetrators must include landlords, real estate agencies and property developers, whose thirst for profit seems insatiable.
While most of the inferior mortals—migrants and natives alike—are struggling to keep up with the soaring high rent and the increasing cost of living, more luxurious property are designed by developers to lure global citizens to Malta. Although the construction of upscale apartment blocks involves underpaid migrant workers, they hardly deserve the blame for the state of affairs since these projects are set to benefit a few tycoons.
Universal tolerance is a poor response to the deepening inequality of opportunities and results. How can we pretend to treat the people, whose status and life conditions are profoundly unequal, in an equal way? The most basic deed you can perform to compensate for the unprivileged social status and the absence of legal protection of migrants and refugees is kindness. Attacking the least privileged, the most vulnerable, the lowest levels of social hierarchy is too easy, not to mention unfair and unkind. Thus, vent your anger with a purpose. Channel it towards the most privileged—be they foreign or Maltese—and demand stricter regulations for their business ventures, tax justice and wealth redistribution.