There’s an elephant in the room, and she’s ‘rejected’ and black: observations on the situation of SSA rejected female asylum seekers living in Malta

Academic Article

Abstract: The free movement of persons is now a fundamental right guaranteed to European Union (EU) citizens. The eradication of internal borders, however, has come at a price, this being the increased securitization of the external borders. Thus what has been termed as ‘fortress Europe’ has become increasingly restrictive for non-EU nationals, in particular non-Europeans. The Stockholm programme remains silent on the rights of irregular migrants who cannot return to their country of origin; there is, if you will, an elephant in the room, a presence that all Member States are aware of, but alas, few, if any, are prepared to address. And yet, despite their irregular status, migrants continue to meet labour market demand and contribute to the host society.  It is indeed this latter point that brings the notion of ‘open citizenship’ in to question, a matter I would like to explore within the context of Malta. Specifically, I would like to consider the case of rejected sub-Saharan African (SSA) female asylum seekers living in Malta, many of whom have been living on the island for some years now, but for reasons beyond their control, cannot return to their country of birth, and unlike EU citizens, or indeed unauthorised migrants living within mainland Europe, cannot leave the island fortress of Malta.

The Stockholm programme remains silent on the rights of irregular migrants who cannot return to their country of origin. In this paper I consider the case of rejected sub-Saharan African female asylum seekers living in Malta and highlight how the intersectionality of inter alia gender, race and legal status leads to isolation and poverty.

The free movement of persons is now a fundamental right guaranteed to European Union (EU) citizens, capturing perhaps the separation of citizenship from the nation-state, as denoted in terms such as ‘post-national citizenship’ (Sassen 2006). The eradication of internal borders, however, has come at a price: the increased securitization of the external borders. Thus what has been termed ‘fortress Europe’ has become increasingly restrictive for non-EU nationals, in particular non-Europeans (Castles & Miller 2003; Joppke 1998). [1] Paradoxically, the increasingly stringent measures to defend the borders have actually led to an increase in immigration. In recent years the EU witnessed a growing number of ‘irregular migrants’[2] living within the EU and a rise in smuggling networks – both phenomena have been described as a direct result of State and regional measures to ward off ‘unwanted’ migration (Castles & Miller 2003:92). The Stockholm Programme, which sets out the key political priorities informing EU immigration policy and the legislative process between 2010-2014, remains silent on the rights of irregular migrants who cannot return to their country of origin (Collett 2010; Gebhardt 2010). However, there is general consensus amongst Member State governments that the current policy is unlikely to be successful in the long-term at bringing an end to irregular migration. As long as disparities in quality of life between countries exist, the motivation to migrate will remain (Koser 2005).

There is, if you will, an elephant in the room, a presence that all Member States are aware of, but alas, few if any are prepared to address. The situation is further aggravated by the present financial crisis, and yet, despite their irregular status, migrants continue to meet the labour markets demand for unskilled labour (de Haas 2008; Sassen 2006) and to contribute in a variety of ways to the host society. Specifically, I would like to consider the case of rejected sub-Saharan African (SSA) female asylum seekers living in Malta. This case is interesting as the vast majority of asylum seekers arriving in Malta originate from SSA (St. John, Delicata & Azzopardi 2008). Whilst their request for asylum may be rejected, many of these women come from countries where the possibility – and safety – of return is a contentious issue. Take for example persons claiming to come from Somalia, Eritrea, the Ivory Coast or the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition, Malta’s lack of diplomatic relations and the absence of sub-Saharan African resident diplomatic representations in Malta renders the enforcement of return very difficult (Pisani & Giustiniani 2009). The end result is a state of limbo, where rejected asylum seekers have no chance of leaving Malta and travelling to Europe and no real opportunity to return to their country of origin (Cardona 2010).

The Stockholm Programme, which sets out the key political priorities informing EU immigration policy and the legislative process between 2010-2014, remains silent on the rights of irregular migrants who cannot return to their country of origin

Notwithstanding the integration of EU migratory policies, the lived experience of migrants within the EU is determined to a certain extent by their geographic location and the sociopolitical and historical context of the host society. Thus any discussion on migration must be contextualized in order to understand the particular nuances that emerge within a given space and over a certain time. Malta, like all other nation-states, is marked by a historical, political, economic and social narrative that impacts political and popular discourse, national policy development and ultimately the lived realities of rejected SSA female asylum seekers.

In this paper I illustrate how this (national) narrative decisively influences the discursive understandings of rejected SSA female asylum seekers, understandings of their gender, ‘race’, religious and cultural identity and even their mode of entry, further impacting national policy development on matters pertaining to – in particular – SSA immigration to Malta.

This brings me to question the notion of ‘open citizenship’. I will argue that despite the emergence of human rights institutions and the erosion of the boundaries that denote citizenship, as in the European Union, the subordination of human rights to citizen rights and the particularities of a given country ensure the exclusion of rejected asylum seekers. Far from being an ‘open condition’ (Sassen 2009:230), I will highlight how the absence of citizenship and the intersectionality of inter alia gender, race and legal status leads to marginalization, isolation and poverty.

Size Does Matter

The Maltese archipelago – which I will refer to as ‘Malta’ – is the southernmost Member State of the European Union. The archipelago consists of the three inhabited islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino and a number of smaller, uninhabited islands. Malta lies almost at the centre of the Mediterranean, some 60 miles south of Sicily and 180 miles north of the coast of North Africa. With a population of 400,000 living on about 316 square kilometers, Malta is the smallest and most densely populated country in the EU and one of the most densely populated countries in the world, with approximately 1,265 inhabitants per square kilometer (Falzon & Micallef 2008). Whilst the constitution of Malta provides for freedom of religion, it establishes Roman Catholicism as the state religion (Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Constitution of Malta).

Although some migrants began to arrive by boat in the late 1990s, government statistics generally recognize the year 2002 as the onset of boat arrivals carrying SSA asylum seekers to Malta. At the time of writing (December 2010), a total of 13,158 ‘boat people’ had arrived in Malta, presumably departing from the coast of Libya, en route Europe (MJHA 2010). The majority of these arrivals were sub-Saharan Africans (see also, St. John, Delicata & Azzopardi 2008). Statistics presented by Eurostat indicate that in 2009 Malta received the largest per capita number of asylum applicants (Albertinelli 2010).

It is here that we begin to see the multi-faceted elements of ‘space’ and how it moves beyond issues of basic demographics and ‘elbow room’ to issues pertaining to policy development and access to rights. To put this into some kind of perspective, and in order to further develop an understanding of ‘space’, it may be helpful to note that the number of ‘undocumented’ migrants living in London alone is estimated to be around 440,000 (Gebhardt 2010). This is higher than the current population of Malta and thus raises important questions about the importance of context in the relationship between the EU and national administrative structures in policy formulation and implementation. Similarly, whilst debates on citizenship and irregular migration have tended to focus on the ‘city’ as the site wherein transformations of ‘citizenship’ can be observed and experienced and perhaps, to a certain degree, transformed (Gebhardt 2010; Sassen 2006), in the case of Malta such debates have little meaning, since the ‘local’ is the ‘national’.

This does not mean to suggest that an individual cannot experience an ‘urban’ setting in Malta, but rather, that ‘space’ takes on a very particular meaning in a micro-state, with policy making taking on a complexity that is highly centralised, ‘multi-faceted and contingent’ (Warrington 1994:112). For example, Gebhardt (2010) demonstrates how cities have responded to the shortcomings of the Stockholm Programme at a local level, by providing undocumented migrants with ‘a substitute for (urban) citizenship [that is] based on residency rather than on legal distinctions’ (16). Such developments are highly unlikely in Malta as long as policy decisions taken on the securitization of borders and asylum seekers’ access to welfare are made in the same building. It is here perhaps that we also begin to understand how the EU’s immigration policy, and the importance it gives to ‘minimum standards’ aimed at creating a level playing field, becomes skewed by disparities between different Member States, and indeed the impact of a ‘one size fits all’ immigration policy. As will be demonstrated later in this paper, Malta’s response to immigration has been, when compared to other Member States, at times drastic. This is reflected, inter alia, by the Government of Malta’s harsh detention policy that is meant to serve to deter asylum seekers from landing in Malta, the constant call to other Member States for ‘burden sharing’ as Malta does not have the resources or the space to deal with the number of arrivals and the fear that this generates, further fuelling the highest rates of racism and Islamophobia reported within the EU.

Micro-states face numerous threats; their ‘vulnerability’ has been understood as grounded in three forms, namely the threat of being ‘overwhelmed’ (be it by natural or human-made phenomena), demographic instability (for example by disease or migration), and economic vulnerability (marked by limited and non-diversified export markets and lack of influence in global markets). Each of these threats has serious implications for policy development (for a more in-depth discussion, see Warrington 1994). The arrival of sub-Saharan African asylum seekers in Malta seems to have been perceived as the biggest ‘threat’ to ‘Maltese’ survival in modern times, with the islands being ‘overwhelmed by the phenomena of illegal migration’ (Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2008:11). The disproportionate number of arrivals in Malta, compared to other Member States, is explained by its geographic location. The Dublin II Regulation, which grants responsibility for hosting the asylum seeker to the Member State in which she first entered the EU,[3] has also been challenged by the Government of Malta on the grounds that it places an unfair ‘burden’ on Malta and similar southern Member States:

The Dublin system needs to be reformed or complemented by a responsibility-sharing mechanism at European Union level, with a view to ensure a more equitable distribution of asylum responsibility.…[Malta’s challenges are] due to the innate limitations of the country, including its small size, high population density and small labour market prone to saturation (The Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs 2010).

However, calls for changes to the Dublin regulation were rejected by the Council of Ministers in November 2010 (ECRE 2010). Such decisions, which are understood as going ‘against the National interest’, are not well received in Malta since they reinforce the belief that, as a micro-state, Malta will always play ‘pawn’ in the international game of chess, a permanent weakness often associated with small nations (see for example, Noe Oest & Wivel 2008).

Thus we can see how issues of ‘space’, in this case, related to state-size have, first of all, implications for the degree of ‘leverage’ a given nation state can bring to the negotiating table. This is evident in the response to calls for changes to the Dublin II regulations.  Secondly, there are implications for the way a particular nation-state responds to a given situation, for example, in the implementation of an 18 month detention policy, and with regards to political rhetoric, a point I will be reverting to. Such multifaceted aspects of ‘space’ are played out and experienced over time, as demonstrated within the Maltese narrative. Providing an in-depth analysis of Malta, a nation with a rich and diverse history that stretches back to 5,200BC lies beyond the scope of this paper. A brief snapshot however, will provide the reader with some insight into why the arrival of sub-Saharan African migrants in Malta has been received with heightened animosity and fear.

The Last Line of Defence: ‘Keeping Europe Christian’

‘Space’ is also influenced by its geographic position. Situated at the centre of the Mediterranean, where East meets West and North meets South, Malta has been colonized in turn by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Normans and the Spaniards, the Order of St. John, the French and the British (Azzopardi 2004).

Malta was conquered by the Arab Empire in 870 A.D. and remained in Muslim hands until the end of the 11th century. Indeed, contrary to local popular belief, during the 200 years of Muslim rule the Maltese were ‘Muslims’ (Hammond 2007). However, this is a bitter pill for many Maltese to swallow as it questions the ideological frame of contemporary national identity.[4] Refuting their Muslim past, the Maltese choose to define themselves as Latin European rather than ‘Arab’ (Buhagiar 2007), despite a lingering Arabic presence seen, for example, in the Siculo-Arabic origins of the Maltese native language. Certainly, the importance of St. Paul and Malta’s role in European Christendom was to become embedded within the national consciousness over time. As Castillo (2006) notes, ‘The devout Maltese are proud to claim that their faith goes back to the apostle Paul, who is the Patron Saint of Malta’ (28). This pride remains at the forefront of national consciousness today and is not to be underestimated. This notion is well captured in the welcome speech made by Malta’s president George Abela upon the arrival of Pope Benedict XVI to Malta in April 2010, wherein he asserts that the arrival of St. Paul

was a definite moment in our history which has to be viewed not only in its historical and religious perspective but also in its moral and cultural implications because it laid the ethical and intellectual foundations of our State. (Abela 2010)

Indeed, contrary to local popular belief, during the 200 years of Muslim rule the Maltese were ‘Muslims’. However, this is a bitter pill for many Maltese to swallow as it questions the ideological frame of contemporary national identity.

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem[5] (the Knights Hospitallers) took over the Islands between 1530 and 1798. It was during this period of rule that Malta resisted the attack of the Ottoman invaders, further cementing Malta’s ‘Europeaness’ as ‘defenders of Christendom’ (Mitchell 2002: 28). Indeed, the national feast known as ‘il-Vitorja’ (the Victory) commemorates the victory in the Great Siege of the islands by the Ottoman Empire in 1565, and is celebrated every year as a public holiday, remaining at the forefront of the Maltese collective memory.

In more recent history the Maltese were once again at the front line, ‘protecting’ Europe. During World War II, Malta’s geographic position was crucial in resisting the Italian and German forces. Indeed, in 1942 the Maltese were collectively awarded the George Cross for their gallantary, cementing the significance of Malta’s contribution to European history, not only as the defenders of Christendom, but also against the North African campaign, in the mindset of the Maltese (Mitchell 2002). As will be demonstrated in this paper, what may be described as an almost historically determined national ‘purpose’ of ‘defending Europe from invasion’ plays a crucial role in Malta’s national reaction (both in political and social discourse, and subsequent policy development) to contemporary migration flows coming out of North Africa.


Unlike many other Member States, in particular former colonial powers for whom immigration (and in particular migration flows from the Global South) is no new phenomenon, Malta has only recently made the shift from an emigration country to a country of immigration. Given Malta’s limited land mass and lack of natural resources, the notion of ‘space’ has demographic implications. During times of economic hardship in particular and in order to relieve itself of overpopulation, Malta has experienced periods of mass emigration. In the period from the end of World War II to 1979, nearly half of Malta’s population left the island, giving it the highest emigration rate in Europe (Jones, 1973; Attard 1983).

Malta was not a colonizer, but rather was colonized, and as such, the Maltese national identity does not struggle like other Member States with loss of empire. Indeed, up until recently the islands were associated and constructed as part of the ‘rest’, and not with the ‘West’ thus associated with images and texts relating to an inferior people, culture and society, such is the legacy of colonialism (see for example, Bradley 1912; Said 1979).[6] It is such detail that manifests different forms of racism, an issue I will return to. The island gained its independence from the British in 1964, but remained within the British Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as the head of state. In 1974 Malta finally became a republic, replacing the Queen with a president appointed by parliament. This was the first time in recorded history that the Maltese were to be responsible for governing their own islands, ending a national history of colonization. Following a lengthy process jarred by disruptions, Malta became a member of the EU in 2004, finally cementing the islands’ ‘European connection’.

Accession demanded a process of ‘Europeanization’ that Cini (2009) defines as a ‘restatement or redefinition of national identity’ (263). For the Maltese this meant taking a long look in the mirror and reflecting on how the island will define itself as a nation and as part of a supranational entity: What does it mean to be Maltese? What does it mean to be European? And how do the two relate to each other? While Malta was deeply engrossed in the question of whether to join the EU, Baldacchino (2002) suggested that, with its chronicled colonial past stretching back over five millennia, ‘one may hazard to proclaim that Malta today is a “nationless state”, a 37-year-old sovereign unit where the nation is yet to be formed’ (194-195).

The Outsider Within

Prior to accession into the EU, Baldacchino (2002) predicted that the EU would emerge as the ‘external other’, providing the fertile ground for an embryonic Maltese nationalism. Ultimately though it was the African ‘klandestini’ as they have come to be colloquially known, that seem to have embodied the ‘other’ and united the ‘Maltese’, stimulating a new discourse steeped in meanings of  nationhood and national identity.

Thus, the arrival of SSA asylum seekers in Malta has been associated with the surfacing of nationalist discourse, the ascendance of far-right political parties, increased xenophobia, Islamophobia and racism (see for example, ECRI 2008; Falzon & Micallef 2008). That asylum seekers are perceived as the ‘great unwanted’ is nothing out of the ordinary, particularly in times of financial crisis, and negative sentiments towards migrants (regular and irregular) are increasing across the EU (de Sancho Alonso 2010). The situation in Malta, however, raises serious concerns.

Racism in Malta has been directly linked to the arrival of SSA asylum seekers (ECRI 2008; Kalweit 2009). Whilst it would be naïve to suggest that racism did not exist prior to 2002, this observation also fails to explain the degree of racism and heightened tension amongst the Maltese. Malta is one of just four countries where only a minority thinks that ethnic diversity enriches the national culture (31.7 percent). The Maltese are consistently the least supportive of migrants’ rights in the EU-27, whether polled about equal social rights, family reunification rights or facilitated naturalization. And the Maltese are the most supportive in the EU-25 of deporting all legally-established third-country nationals (35 percent), especially if they are unemployed (63.6 percent) (MIPEX 2007:127).

Certainly, Malta’s limited land mass and population density would appear to be a source of heightened fear, leading to racism. The issue of limited space has been put forward relentlessly by Maltese politicians, as noted in the following extract from a speech made by Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister Tonio Borg:

In spite of all efforts, including those by Frontex, the migrant population in Malta keeps increasing; its impact on the society and economy of Malta, one of the most densely populated countries in the world, is being felt all over the island and creating a feeling of unease amongst our population … As our Prime Minister rightly pointed out… ‘it is extremely difficult for us to continue to carry such a burden which is so acutely disproportionate to the size of the country and its population’ (Borg 2008).

One would be forgiven for understanding, from the above extract, that the only migrants residing in Malta are the SSA asylum seekers arriving by boat. Of course this is not the case, and yet, such discourse has led to a somewhat exaggerated impression of the reality (Grech 2009). The use of terms such as ‘invasion’ (Maltamedianews 2007) has left many Maltese nationals feeling that they are being ‘taken over – again’ by Africans (read: Muslims), and recalls the Great Siege and, to a lesser degree, also World War II within the national mindset (Sammut 2007). Theories on racism developed within post-colonizer countries, with a long history of immigration from the South (see for example, Gilroy 1992), may fail to capture the racism that is being projected and experienced in Malta, a small and densely populated post-colonial space, situated within – but on the margins of – the EU (both geographically and with regards to political clout), with a strong Roman Catholic identity, that only recently began to experience immigration from the South. Racism in Malta then must be considered within its historical, spatial and temporal context, as the following passage, taken from a far-right website, perhaps demonstrates:

While 500 years ago, Grand Master De Redin had installed 13 watchtowers through which the Maltese, within a few minutes, could be warned of impending invasion, illegal immigrants now sunbathed on deckchairs without anybody realising how or when they had landed (Gaucip 2005).

Such interpretation may go some way to explaining why, for consecutive years, immigration has been considered to be either the top, or one of the top concerns of the Maltese, 25 percentage points higher than the EU average and the highest within the EU (European Commission 2009). Such concerns are also reflected in the level of racism and Islamophobia. The EU Midis research reported that 64 percent of Africans (North and sub-Saharan) in Malta who identified themselves as Muslims, experienced discrimination, once again the highest in the EU and 34 percent higher than the EU average (EU Midis 2009). Thus, one can observe how the ‘Maltese’ narrative has impacted social discourse and fuelled racism, with well documented implications for social exclusion and indeed the notion of ‘open citizenship’.

Policy development within the island fortress and implications for rejected asylum seekers

In his theoretical elaborations on discourse, Foucault (1977) demonstrates how a social and political context affects language and how that language shapes and constructs realities. Government discourse, supported by the main political opposition and reinforced by the general public, has allowed the development of hard-line policies that further serve to fuel racism, xenophobia and exclusion (see also ECRI Malta’s 2008 report). This point was also picked up by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights in a recent visit to Malta wherein he called for the Government of Malta to ‘move away from a reactive approach to migration and establish a system that is fully in line with European standards concerning the human rights of immigrants and asylum seekers’ and to take ‘determined action to eliminate manifestations of intolerance and xenophobia’ (Commissioner for Human Rights 2011).

Examples of such discourse are plentiful. If we take the issue of space, for example, Maltese Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi has made it clear on a number of occasions that Malta’s ‘capacity to host arriving immigrants has exceeded all reasonable limits’ (Gonzi 2009: 5). Given this ‘reality’, the Government of Malta has adopted a policy of admistrative detention for all asylum seekers arriving in Malta in an irregular manner. Those persons whose application for asylum and subsequent appeal is refused within the first 12 months must remain the total duration of 18 months (St. John, Delicata & Azzopardi 2008). The detention policy is justified on the grounds of security, as noted in the following statement by the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs: ‘It should be borne in mind that the purpose of our detention policy is to maintain security – even from a health point-of-view’ (Department of Information 2009).

Organizing forced returns is a costly and complicated matter, whilst Malta’s lack of diplomatic relations and absence of sub-Saharan African resident diplomatic representations in Malta renders the enforcement of return very difficult (Pisani & Giustiniani 2009). In addition, research conducted in Malta on the likelihood of take-up of Assisted Voluntary Return (AVR) found that the majority of rejected asylum seekers from SSA were not likely to return voluntarily because of safety issues in the country of origin (Falzon 2007). Given that forced return is unlikely, the length of detention would appear to be disproportionate, inappropriate and hardly justifiable. Upon release all asylum seekers (regardless of status) are provided with space in an open centre; however, once again, the political discourse is clear. As a recent statement by the Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs makes clear, the emphasis must be on ‘burden sharing’: ‘Malta cannot integrate the large number of immigrants present on the island. Significant resettlement efforts, particularly by the EU Member States, are still required’ (Department of Information 2011). [7] Indeed, at the time of writing the Government of Malta was making a renewed effort to try to convince other Member States that the EU should trigger the emergency mechanism that provides for obligatory burden sharing to help Malta cope new arrivals (Sansone 2011).[8]

Regardless of whether or not such calls for burden sharing are answered, the rejected SSA asylum seekers will remain in Malta. As is standard practice, a rejected asylum seeker is not issued travel document and does not have permission to travel elsewhere; instead, she remains in an ongoing state of uncertainty in which she has no legal immigration status, no chances of travelling (in a regular manner) to a third country and, for many, no realistic opportunity to return home (see also COMMdh 2007). Integration into Maltese society – at least in terms of policy drive – does not appear to be on the agenda, as clearly this goes against the return policy; the rejected asylum seeker is the elephant in the room, and ignoring her reality simply serves to increase marginalisation and obstruct social cohesion. The following passage captures the despair of a rejected female asylum seeker living in Malta:

I am living in poverty […] They want me to die in poverty. Racism, discrimination and unnecessary deportation are my greatest worries here. […] My fear is that I don’t have a future here in Malta because they don’t have a plan for me and that I have been abandoned like every other African who came from West Africa (Cardona 2010).

Social exclusion is gendered

Gender is an integral part of the migration process that is impacted by gender relations, roles and hierarchies, producing differential outcomes for women (Boyd & Grieco 2003). When irregular migration intersects with gender the results can often be toxic; rejected female asylum seekers are at an increased risk of danger and vulnerable to violations of their most fundamental human rights. Lack of security, lack of access to vital services, overcrowding, food shortages and poor sanitation are just some of the factors that impact women’s ability to function within their social gender norms (Kofman et al. 2000; PICUM 2009). Under such conditions, community support, social rules and regulations can become fragile, and the difference in power relations between men and women is often manifested through gender-based violence and rape (Williamson 2004). Given that SSA migration to Malta is a relatively recent phenomena, combined with the transitory nature of migrants’ stay in Malta (this in relation to those SSA migrants granted protection who have, or wish to be, resettled elsewhere or who have left Malta and not yet returned under the Dublin II), SSA communities are not well established. Indeed the SSA women living in Malta are essentially the pioneers of this migrant flow. In addition, outside of employment, SSA migrants tend to have very limited contact with the wider Maltese society (Integraref 2008; Pisani & Azzopardi 2008). Outside of the limited resources made available by a small number of NGOs and the government services described below, rejected female asylum seekers do not have established community support systems available to them.

Once again it is interesting to see how gender plays out within a particular context. Despite recent improvements in gender equality, gender stereotypes influenced by the Church maintain women’s subjugated position in Maltese society (Naudi 2005). Indeed, whilst gender equality has not been achieved in any EU Member State, Malta consistently performs especially poorly on gender equality (Plantenga 2009). This coupled with racial discrimination makes the situation for SSA female refugees increasingly troubling. Whilst SSA female asylum seekers are largely invisible in media reports, when they are featured the one-sided debate largely focuses on the hijab, female genital mutilation, prostitution, HIV and pregnancy. This presents – and reinforces – a sexualized, skewed image of African women as victims, passive and burdensome (Pisani & Azzopardi 2008). The body relates to the text, ‘she’ is ‘black’ and ‘rejected’, an ‘illegal immigrant’: patriarchal, racist, statist stereotypes abound, the regimes of discourse and power are inscribed on the body, reconstructing the subject (Foucault 1977). It is here that we begin to see how the intersectionality of inter alia gender, race, class and legal status plays out: where the fear of deportation further restrains the possibility to access rights or report violence, abuse or exploitation and life is experienced at the margins of society, marked by fear, isolation and poverty (Geddie 2009; Pisani & Azzopardi 2008). In the following section I consider two particular elements of life in Malta, namely access to housing and employment, that can be seen to exacerbate gender inequalities and serve to push rejected female asylum seekers to the margins of society.

Access to housing

Access to adequate housing is a fundamental right that has essentially become a non-policy issue (Carrera & Guild 2010) denied to irregular migrants within the Stockholm Programme (see also Scappucci 2010). Whilst Gebhardt (2010) demonstrates how cities within Europe have tried to work within their remit to provide access to fundamental rights and services, in Malta, as a result of its small size, such practical adaptations seem to be carried out at national level. Upon release from the detention centre, rejected asylum seekers are provided with a place in one of the open centres. Whilst the conditions in the open centres have come under increasing criticism (see for example Amnesty International 2010), the policy – which is not grounded in ‘rights’ provided in law (Jesuit Refugee Service [JRS] Malta 2010) – is an example of how policy makers have tried to adjust to the lived reality and needs of rejected female asylum seekers.[9] Such (discrete) policy moves often fly in the face of political rhetoric that insists on the ‘expeditious return’ of rejected asylum seekers (Malta National Focal Point 2009).

Another example of a policy decision taken at a national level, which is to be commended given the state of affairs in other Member States, is the provision of a daily allowance of €3.49[10] for rejected asylum seekers residing in open centres. That said, the daily allowance provides only for basic survival. Those individuals suffering from a medical condition or disability simply cannot cover basic needs (JRS Malta 2010). For example, those individuals who live in relatively remote places on the island must spend half of the per diem on bus fare to access key services, leaving almost nothing for food.

The situation is comprised of mixed messages, which are symptomatic of the disparity between EU policy and the rights of rejected female asylum seekers (see also Carrera & Merlino 2010). Government service providers often struggle with, on the one hand, the human needs of vulnerable asylum seekers and on the other hand, the hard-line approach in terms of discourse on returns. This has led organisations to take on a strong advocacy role vis-à-vis rejected asylum seekers a reluctance while at the same time demonstrating a reluctance to readmit rejected asylum seekers into the centres once they have exited the ‘system’. As a result, decisions are often made arbitrarily and do little to alleviate fear and a sense of insecurity (JRS Malta 2010).

In the event that the woman, in some cases with her family, does not return to the country of origin, she is expected to leave the open centre and find accommodation in the community. The situation is complicated by the fact that SSA migrants have trouble finding affordable rented accommodation due to racism (Fondazzjoni Suret il-Bniedem 2010). Once the service agreement within an open centre is terminated and the woman is living in the community, she has no financial or social safety net to fall back on. The situation is particularly desperate for women with children who have no access to child-care facilities and therefore find it difficult to find employment.[11] This lack of supportive policy has come under considerable criticism by NGOs working in the field and is recognized as one of the contributing factors increasing vulnerability to destitution (JRS Malta 2010: 8). In addition, once an individual is asked or chooses to leave, it is very difficult to re-enter the open centre system, often rendering an individual homeless and destitute. Life in the community becomes even more precarious where children are involved since no allowance or financial contribution is available for them. In short, a rejected female asylum seeker has no right to, and cannot be assured of, a place in an open centre, and, in the event that she cannot find employment, has no alternative source of financial support:

As their rights are not specifically regulated by law, and the support provided in terms of current policy is more limited that that provided to other categories of migrants, they are at even greater risk of destitution and poverty, including homelessness. This situation, in turn could exacerbate an individual’s vulnerability to other forms of harm, such as prostitution or human trafficking (JRS Malta 2010:13).

Thus, once a woman has left the centre, she is essentially alone: in the absence of community workers, the woman drops off the radar. Whilst this ‘invisibility’ may provide a sense of security (the risk of being picked up for deportation has been minimised), she has also moved away from the key services that may be able to offer some kind of support in times of need. It is here that we begin to see how the intersectionality of inter alia gender, race and legal status leads to marginalisation, isolation and poverty.


Whilst there is a research gap with regards to employment and SSA asylum seekers (rejected or otherwise), Borg (2010) describes SSA migrants living in Malta as particularly vulnerable to being ‘working poor’. This population is reported as experiencing a multitude of adverse characteristics simultaneously, including being confronted with racism, being exploited in low-skilled jobs with low rates of pay and poor working conditions. SSA female asylum seekers have also reported finding it harder to find work compared with their male counterparts (Borg 2009; Pisani & Azzopardi 2008). Gatt (2005) also found that Muslim women in Malta feel discriminated against and ‘victimised’ for wearing the veil. Statistics provided by the national employment agency, the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC), also demonstrate a gendered division of labour, with the majority of SSA women being employed in some form of manual work, generally cleaning, further supporting the notion that rejected female asylum seekers are filling the jobs in the labour market that Maltese nationals are no longer willing to do (findings also supported elsewhere in the EU, see for example Kofman et al., 2000). Research also suggests that many SSA rejected female asylum seekers in Malta are employed in such gendered roles regardless of their academic achievements (tertiary level) and/or previous work experience (Pisani & Azzopardi 2008).

Contrary to popular discourse, the arrival of SSA asylum seekers does not seem to have adversely affected unemployment levels in Malta (General Workers Union [GWU] 2010), but rather, SSA migrants are filling the jobs the native population are no longer ready to consider. Paradoxically, despite concerns regarding population density, Malta, like the rest of the EU, is experiencing demographic decline. The challenges of labour shortage and the need to support the social security system may well have to be met through importing labour (Suban 2010). This economic argument remains a bitter pill to swallow for policy makers and the wider Maltese public with regard to SSA migrants. This point is also picked up by the MIPEX (2008) index that flags national policy targets on labour market integration measures for migrants as ‘critically weak’ in Malta (124).

Paradoxically, despite concerns regarding population density, Malta, like the rest of the EU, is experiencing demographic decline.

Yet, while Malta generally adopts a restrictive policy with rigorous conditions for the issuance of employment licences to third-country nationals (MIPEX 2008) the government of Malta has adopted a somewhat unusual – and, relatively speaking, flexible – policy of providing the opportunity for ‘regular work’ for rejected asylum seekers. Within this scenario, an employer can apply for a work permit (in the name of the employee) in order to employ a rejected asylum seeker. Such permits are valid for three months and can be renewed. Crucially, this measure does not mean that the rejected asylum seeker has regularised her legal status, but rather, she can work with an employment licence pending repatriation. It seems quite clear that this policy was implemented on economic grounds (whilst they are on the island and working, the country can benefit from their labour supply and financial contributions), and possibly also as a means of monitoring the rejected asylum seeker population in the event of forced return. Regardless, the policy does not stem from any provision in law (see also Gauci 2010). Thus, whilst rejected female SSA asylum seekers are provided the opportunity to work in a regular manner and hence contribute to national insurance, this provision does not translate into the ‘right’ to register for work; hence a rejected female asylum seeker does not qualify for unemployment benefits, sickness benefits or child allowance, regardless of the insurance contributions she has made (see also Rizzo 2009). Such structural obstacles add a dynamic that is seemingly beyond the control of rejected female SSA asylum seekers and relate to poverty not only in terms of income, but also in terms of prospects, security and decision-making opportunities.

The way forward: Implications for open citizenship

Since the first arrivals in 2002, rejected female asylum seekers have been residing in Malta;  SSA rejected female asylum seekers living in Malta are having children (and their children attend Maltese schools, have learned the Maltese language, and are now living in their own ‘country of origin’). Despite the obstacles referred to above, many of the women have managed to find jobs and housing within the community, and thus are contributing to Maltese society despite their irregular status. Clearly, limiting our understanding of the situation to a victim binary would be limiting, denying the strength and resistance many of these women demonstrate in the face of the challenging circumstances. In short, many rejected female SSA asylum seekers are – at some level – getting on with life in Malta. Sassen (2006) would probably describe this phenomenon as the ‘unauthorized yet recognized…[binding of] undocumented immigrants to their communities of residence [and moving them] between the mulitple meanings of citizenship’ (188). She goes on to argue that the practices of undocumented migrants, in which I include rejected asylum seekers, take on the form of citizenship practices, and that ‘their identities as members of a community of residence assume some of the features of citizenship identities’ (Sassen 2006: 189). As such, Sassen argues that the analytic terrain within which we discuss matters pertaining to rights, authority and obligations is changing. She supports this argument by demonstrating how the emergence of supranational human rights institutions and the erosion of the boundaries that denote citizenship, as is the case with the European Union, has ‘destabilised’ the meaning of citizenship, moving towards post-national features of citizenship or what I interpret as a more ‘open’ citizenship.

And yet, rejected female asylum seekers are not citizens of the state, nor are they (by default) citizens of the EU. Citizenship formally assigns the equality of rights of all citizens within a political community; membership in the ‘nation’ is denoted by the status of citizenship, which conveys rights and duties. Citizenship not only has real material consequences, but also assures a minimum level of social security, at least in theory. This is based on the need to secure fair and equal treatment for all members of society. Rejected female asylum seekers are excluded from these rights and hence cannot depend on the state for protection and the provision of social entitlements (see also, Guichon, van den Anker & Novikova 2006), which, impedes inclusion and any hope of long-term stability. The high level of surveillance that is part of living on a small island also limits the possibility of exercising political agency: political clout is nonexistent. On an island where it feels as though everyone knows everyone else, and the constant fear of deportation looms, the safest strategy is to keep one’s head down, remain invisible and live out life in the margins.

Exclusionary policies such as those described here, combined with the further marginalising aspects of racist and xenophobic sentiments – that are seen to emerge historically within the Maltese context – affect all rejected asylum seekers negatively; however, the effect is particularly pronounced for female asylum seekers and serves to reinforce gender inequalities. Clearly, Malta has not ‘denationalised’ in the case of the human rights regime and protecting its borders, and the subordination of human rights to citizen rights also categorizes persons, officially and formally sanctioning exclusion and discrimination. Indeed, recent developments in the Mediterranean demonstrate the inherent contradiction that exists between the human rights framework, the nation-state and EU citizenship. Indeed, to date, despite numerous statements on the fundamental rights of irregular migrants (such as access to health care or education for children), no specific EU measures have been adopted to protect their rights (IOM 2010). Any discussion on ‘open citizenship’ cannot continue to ignore the elephant in the room. She is living in Malta, she is living within the EU, she is ‘rejected’ and she is black.


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[1]           On the 29 September 2008 the CoE, Commissioner for Human Rights issued his viewpoint on the trend towards the criminalization of the irregular entry and presence of migrants in Europe. In the viewpoint, the Commissioner states: ‘Such a method of controlling international movement corrodes established international law principles; it also causes many human tragedies without achieving its purpose of genuine control’ (Commissioner for Human Rights 2008).

[2]               Due to the very nature of irregular migration, analysis of the phenomena is hindered by a lack of data. That said, there is consensus that since the flow of international migrants has increased, so too has the number of irregular migrants (GCIM 2005). I use the term ‘irregular’ instead of ‘illegal’ or ‘undocumented’ migrants. It is only the means of entry that could be deemed illegal by some; there is no such thing as an ‘illegal person’ and the term ‘illegal immigrant’ does not exist in international law (GCIM 2005; SOLIDAR 2007). As Schrover et al (2009) note, the term ‘undocumented’ is also problematic, since it is sometimes used to denote migrants who have not been documented, and other times describes migrants without documents. In the case of asylum seekers in Malta, Article 5 of the Immigration Act (Chapter 217 of the Laws of Malta) does not refer to illegal immigrants but rather to prohibited migrants. In addition, an individual is documented upon applying for asylum as reflected in the Reception of Asylum Seekers (Minimum Standards) Regulations.

[3]               The Dublin II is an EU law that determines which Member State is responsible for examining the asylum seekers’ application for international protection under the Geneva Convention and the EU Qualification Directive. In other words, a woman who applied for asylum in Malta cannot request asylum in, or travel to, another Member State. If she attempts to do so and is apprehended by authorities, her fingerprints will be compared with those taken from every asylum applicant in the EU through EURODAC, which will reveal that she is registered in Malta and consequently she will be returned.

[4]              Borg and Mayo (2006) provide insight into how representations (and hence reductions) of the non-European (read African/Muslim) in religious iconography and images as somehow deficient and inferior has left a deep scar in the Maltese psyche that remains today.

[5]              The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of Saint John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and of Malta (SMOM) is celebrated in Malta as one of the oldest institutions of Western and Christian civilization.

[6]               Bradley (1912) insists that whilst ‘we can understand the aversion [of the Maltese] to being in any way connected with Arabs, especially when the Englishman’s lack of discrimination with regard to foreigners is remembered. All this, however, is to the scientific mind of little avail compared with the value of truth’ (Bradley 1912: 162).

[7]               The United States has assisted Malta with a resettlement programme. At the time of writing, a EU-funded programme entitled ‘EUREMA’ was also being implemented. This pilot project, the result of intense lobbying for ‘burden sharing’ on behalf of the Maltese government will resettle 250 migrants granted protection in Malta to one of the participating Member States. Rejected asylum seekers do not qualify for either of these programmes.

[8]               In March 201, over the course of two days, almost 800 asylum seekers arrived in Malta. Again the majority of these asylum seekers were SSA nationals, in particular from Somalia and Eritrea (Sansone 2011).

[9]           However, the situation is far from ideal. Whilst the open centres may provide a sanctuary in the face of racism and xenophobia, the relative physical isolation and crowded living conditions provides for high surveillance and patriarchal control. This perhaps is reinforced by the limitation of physical space in Malta and echoes the ‘small island nature’ of Malta described by O’Reilly Mizzi (1981) that served (and perhaps still serves) to maintain Maltese women in a subjugated role.

[10]             A rejected asylum seeker with employment is expected to contribute €1.16 per day to the cost of material conditions in the open centre. A daily child allowance €2.33 is provided for children up to the age of 17. This allowance is to cover the cost of living expenses, whilst the accommodation is free (JRS Malta 2010).

[11]             Child-care facilities for working mothers are in very short supply in Malta. Maltese women largely rely on grandparents to take care of their children in order to be able to work (Bartolo 2005). Given the limited community support, and the absence of family, this option is rarely available to rejected SSA female asylum seekers.