Convention of Leaders of Associations of Maltese Abroad and of Maltese Origin

Author: John Axisa

Emigration played a dominant role in the course of my long civil service career.

The great interest shown in this Convention is a tribute to the organisers and our thanks go to them for the considerable work they have put into it.

As emigration has stabilised it is well that we should take stock of the events and realities experienced over the years and to see how the ties binding the emigrants to the mother country and vice versa can be strengthened.

With so many interested and interesting speakers there is bound to be a certain amount of overlapping touching on personal experiences or just historical accounts.

I speak from the centre directly responsible for the structure that the Department of Emigration developed as the base of operations regulating emigration from as early as 1927, 73 years ago.

It was in fact in 1927 that I joined the newly set up Department of Emigration. One of my duties then was to administer a Vote providing for the relief of distressed Maltese abroad. For over a century emigration had been directed to the countries on the Mediterranean littoral: Egypt, Turkey, Greece, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and the South of France. Over the years the emigrants had become fully integrated into the new social environment with varying levels of success, but, as always happens, quite a few became destitute and in need of assistance. An arrangement was reached with the British consuls serving in those countries whereby the consuls sent lists to my Department of Maltese in need of financial assistance with a report in each case. After vetting the names (often badly distorted) as to their Maltese origin the Department remitted the necessary funds.

This arrangement worked well until 1947 when these countries passed legislation prohibiting foreigners from exercising their trade or profession. The worst hit were those of Egypt who were dispossessed of their property and not even allowed to take anything out of the country. In desperation they naturally turned to their country of origin with an appeal to resettle in Malta.

But Malta was in the grip of an unprecedented wave of unemployment with figures daily escalating as the military services were run down. Their coming to Malta would have been suicidal to them and to Malta. We tried to gain time with the excuse that there was an outbreak of cholera in Egypt but a solution needed to be found.

It was Sir Francis Douglas, our then Governor and a distinguished lawyer, who came to the rescue by decreeing that these Maltese who had proudly held firm to their British passports were, in this situation, the responsibility of the British Government.

The British Government immediately took the matter in hand and arranged resettlement in Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

If anything their love of Malta became stronger and eventually they set up their own associations or joined an existing one. Prominent amongst these associations is the association of Maltese of Egypt in London whose President Chev. Ivan Magri Overand has obviously just become an honorary member of the Maltese Order of Merit. The man who through his quarterly journal has perhaps done most to keep alive the ties binding Maltese everywhere to their mother country. This and the older Malta League in London worked closely with my High Commission looking after the welfare of the Maltese in the United Kingdom. Other associations who have shown deep affection for Malta are those of San Francisco, New York, Detroit, Canada and Australia. Their strong interest in the well being of the mother country is demonstrated by the many donations they made in local Charities especially after the ravages Malta endured during the war.

Turning back to the thirties. With the traditional movement to the Mediterranean littoral having practically dried up a few hundred still went to Tunisia or the South of France but many returned because of restrictions on their employment. Efforts were made to open up the U.S.A., Australia and Canada but the immigration restrictions were hard and the distance and the cost were another big problem. The Pappaffy Emigration Fund and a means test committee set up within the Department provided limited passage assistance enabling a few to go to those countries and quite a good many went to the United Kingdom. This was the situation when the second World War broke out and the Department closed down.

As we lived through death and creeping starvation I thought of the appalling situation expected to develop at the end of the war when thousands of men would be discharged by the Services without there being any industries to absorb them. At the height of the Blitz in March 1942 I addressed a memorandum to Lord Gort, then Governor, expressing my thoughts and recommending that a standing committee be set up to make preparations for post war emigration. My recommendation was immediately welcomed and Dr., later Sir Paul Boffa, Dr Henry Sacco, Mr H.E. Knott, then Director of Labour as chairman and myself as Secretary were appointed. We made several recommendations many of which were actively followed up. With the end of the war and the restoration of constitutional Government Mr J.J. Cole (who had set up a prospective emigrations organisation) was appointed Minister of Emigration and I was appointed Director of Emigration. We at once set out to the U.K., Canada, the U.S.A. and Australia, where the name earned by Malta during the war stood us in good stead and obtained special facilities for the entry of Maltese emigrants. In the case of Australia, where our Commissioner Capt. Curmi had successfully negotiated a Passage Assistance Agreement, we were able to persuade a reluctant Minister of Immigration to sign the agreement which we had delayed doing for over nine months. My newly opened Department of Emigration was flooded with prospective migrants registering according to the country of their choice. And there followed a long period of negotiations with the receiving countries as to procedure and processing of the migrants. The Department then embarked on the extremely difficult and risky task of chartering ships when ships which had survived sinking were much in demand. Checking the seaworthiness of the ships (one had to be discarded) and organising departures of sometimes exceeding one thousand men, women and children, against sometimes even political interference, was a risk which the Department courageously took upon itself with success.

The catastrophic situation in Europe at the end of the war, with thousands upon thousands of unemployed or displaced persons and widespread destitution, led the U.S.A., France and the United Kingdom to convene in Paris a Conference of Experts on Migration (on which I was invited to serve as Malta’s representative), in an effort to promote emigration and re-establish peace and stability in Europe. Malta had thus the opportunity to take its rightful place amongst the free nations of the world and I made much, amongst the matters discussed, to press very strongly the American delegation for the amendment of the MacCarran-Walter Act which harshly prevented wives and children and other relatives from joining their breadwinners in America. My representations raised evident concern among the American delegates who there and then took the matter up with Washington, unfortunately without success. Representations to the American Government continued as the years went by but it was only in 1965 that the Act was finally amended. The Conference led to the setting up in 1950 of an inter-governmental committee for European migration (I.C.E.M.) with funds to organise large scale emigration from Europe which it did with success.

As against the chaos in Europe, Malta had been well prepared and had organised its emigration movement in an orderly and peaceful manner well ahead of the setting up of I.C.E.M. which eventually worked closely with my Department by providing space on their ships. From the end of the war to 1970, 127,000 men, women and children emigrated representing 30 per cent of the population if they had not emigrated.

The organisation that went into this movement was a service rendered to the migrants who had come forward of their own accord. At no time did this Department encourage people to emigrate. The encouragement came from the lack of jobs and from the letters they received from those who had gone out before them. Their departure was not easy. They had to satisfy the regulations of the receiving countries, pass a conduct, medical and literacy test and an interview by a representative of the country concerned. They paid Lm10 and the balance was paid on their behalf on conditions approaching a loan. Archbishop Gonzi and Mons. Calleja were of tremendous help to the Department. Mons. Calleja’s lifelong dedication to the welfare of the migrants from the day of their departure to their settlement in the new country was a mission of love and the soul behind the movement. For this, even now, I wish to express my deep gratitude. His vision in building Dar l-Emigrant to continue his good work and eventually to extend its use to the distressing lot of the refugees crowns his achievement.

A Priest and a Welfare Officer from the Department accompanied the migrants on board the ship while the Office of the Commissioner for Malta in Australia saw to their welfare on arrival. Earlier speakers have described how the migrants, particularly those of the 50’s and 60’s were able to overcome their initial difficulties of settlement and how their social standard had progressed dramatically. The use of the Maltese language which this Convention is trying so hard to maintain and strengthen presents an almost unsurmountable problem as the migrants get older and give way to their first and second generation. It is to these that we should address the importance of upholding their Maltese identity and heritage through the use of Maltese.

The huge flow of emigrants we have experienced could only have been contained by the creation of jobs. By the creation of industries. But jobs in industry could not be created by a system of education that for generations had led to strong prejudice against the teaching of technology in the schools and a university that turned out more and more lawyers and medical doctors without showing a corresponding interest in the teaching of science and technology.

In 1957, as director of Technical Education, I imported science teachers (since we had none), opened the newly built secondary school in Paola, which heralded the first state of the art science laboratory in Malta, launched the first sixth form, and organised a course of students leading to University of London degrees in science and technology.

This challenge led to meetings with the university which initiated the much needed changes and eventually to the teaching of science and technology. A revolution which within a few years led to the development of an ever widening industrial base and investment which produced jobs and drastically cut down on emigration to the extent that migrants were attracted back to Malta.

We are proud that a larger Malta, being strengthened by the new law on dual citizenship, exists beyond our shores. A larger Malta which remains steadfast to the traditions, faith and love of our Island Nation which this convention, and others hopefully to follow, is trying to strengthen further.

I wish to make one last point. The loss of all the thousands of young, healthy and enterprising men, women and children, justified only because of the lack of work opportunities at the time, naturally led to a distortion in the composition of Malta’s population, creating a higher percentage of the elderly coupled to the general increase of life expectancy.

There appears to be no solution to this problem which must be faced in greater measure by future generations.

We are fortunate to have with us Prof. A.H. Debono, Director of the International Institute on Ageing, whom we look forward to listen to with interest. I wish him well.

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