Refugees in Malta

All grouped up with no place to go.

I just read an article in a print version of the New York Times (available here) describing the plight of African immigrants in the small archipelago nation of the Republic of Malta. Malta is small and dense. It has a population 368,000 people, according to its Wikipedia article, who squeeze into its 316 square kilometers at a rate of 1,306 people per square kilometer. Malta is the seventh densest nation in the world. After all the unrest in Northern Africa over the last few months, the Maltese have been flooded with immigrants bound for the wealth and stability of Europe, many of whom are rescued off of makeshift boats, starving, thirsty, dirty and poor.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land; Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame. "Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-ost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" -- The New Collosus , by Emma Lazarus

The Times article described how poorly the Maltese are dealing with this influx: First they jail illegal immigrants for six months to a year, often in impromptu prisons made from unconverted aircraft hangars. Then they end up in “open centers” - little more than collections of cargo cannisters with communal taps and bathrooms for sanitation - while they look for work. The Times interviewed one plaintive young man: “We are here, looking for a life.”

The Times spent a lot of ink describing the how limited the Maltese government’s resources for deportation and relocation are. They lack embassy contacts with African countries. Other European nations won’t take them. The Maltese are stuck in a sticky situation with no options which are both moral and political feasible.

Paint me liberal, but I think the Maltese have been presented with an unheralded opportunity. Immigrants are motivated by the promise of a better life for themselves and their families. If given the opportunity they will work hard for success. Immigrants are not the deadbeats of a nation. They had the motivation, means, and wherewithal to evaluate their situation and leave it for the unknown. They flee corruption or violence. They tear their roots out of tougher earth. They are, in a sense, the select of Northern Africa, and even better, they are heavily invested in making a new life wherever they end up– They certainly don’t want to go back where they came from. So they have no options but to languish or to work. They are more thankful for these opportunities than most, and harder working than those who never had to fight for the societal benefits they enjoy. I think there is a strong argument to be made that open immigration policies and the resulting concoction of viewpoints, success strategies, and cultural cross-currents are responsible for making the United States the economic power house it is today.

So why aren’t the Maltese embracing this glut of human capital? Where are the entrepreneurs opening up factories with all this cheap and eager labor? From the Times article, it sounds like the problem is nativist sentiment– a veiled form of discrimination which hampers economic development and drives people to ignore opportunities. Maybe cleverer heads will prevail before the windfall turns sour, angry, and unruly.