The other face of immigration

Mario Mallia
published in The Times of Malta

We had arrived late. Close-up images of the dark sea were being projected on the screen barely reflecting enough light off the canvas for us to make our way to two empty seats.
Every step was a leap in the dark.

The documentary, a JRS production, focuses on the human drama of victims of persecution, injustice and famine and their leaps in the dark in an attempt to carve their own destiny. The focus is on five or so women, men and children’s craving for dignity and self-respect, arriving in Malta through different routes. Their aims are the same. They recount stories of the horrors they chose to leave behind; the violence, the oppression, death. They speak about the interminable journeys guided by a glimmer of hope; their forays into scorching deserts, their hiding places and the clutching at all straws to make it through. They also talk of their arrival on our shores. Everything considered, detention and all, they talk about us kindly.
They, of all people, try to understand us. They talk of taking up every opportunity that comes their way. They learn to make the best of circumstance; the cramped conditions in detention centres, the difficulties within open centres, the odd jobs they manage to undertake. They speak of their loneliness, their craving for their homeland. Above all they are staunch believers in their future; in their possibilities.

This film is a testament of hope.

When the film was inaugurated early this year, the Don Quixotes among us whose windmills in life include immigration and immigrant bashing, claimed a scandal. The Jesuits had, horror of horrors, promised to make the production available for viewing in schools. They protested loudly and invoked the minister of education to intervene in the matter. Students should not be exposed to such Jesuit brainwashing. This is not part of the curriculum, they argued. Teachers should stick to Pythagoras, the past participle and at best the Community Chest Fund. Compassion, solidarity, understanding, transformation, a critical mind and a sense of agency have nothing to do with education. Their devil-in-a-church attitude gave away a terror of having set beliefs challenged; of being overpowered by a whiff of fresh air that tears through the cobwebs of indifference and a warped sense of national pride.
Can we expect any better? Perhaps we should. Especially now.
Political posturing at a time of crisis is indeed sad. It is good that the Prime Minister has gone on record saying that humans are not objects; that human life and principles are not for sale. That should help reverse some of the damage that pandering to far right sentiments by the political establishment has wrought ever since the first boatload of immigrants arrived on our shores. The list is shameful as much as it is impressive; the doomsday scenario on immigration during the last election campaign tainted with a macho image in dealing with the European Union, with music fit for a Hitchcock thriller thrown in for good measure, the Nationalist government’s thumbs up to Italy’s refusal to the rights of asylum and the latter’s infamous agreement with Gaddafi, the talk of suspending our adherence to the Geneva convention, and the last tirade by the Labour leader that immigrants arriving in Malta should be shipped to Italy, like merchandise as the Prime Minister put it. These, together with the incessant use of discourse such as burden sharing, problems, klandestini, detention, among others, have made it more difficult for us as a country to look at the human face of immigration, and indeed the positive aspects of it. Our ranting on the duties of other European countries for solidarity in our regard, even if legitimate, has been ingrained in our national psyche to such a degree that it is difficult for most of us to see other facets to the issue, the human face, first and foremost.
That is why the issue is crying out to be portrayed in another dimension by our political class in Parliament. That is why the NGO’s voice of reason should be encouraged and complemented both in the public sphere and in schools in particular.
At the end of the film, the protagonists talk of their ordeal to have refugee/humanitarian status granted. They talk of being included in resettlement programmes. Some are shown leaving tearful but hopeful.
At the end of the hour and a half of film, you cannot help the distinct feeling that these people have now become some other country’s gain and our country’s loss. Food for thought indeed.

Mr Mallia is spokesman for Education for Alternattiva Demokratika