A New Deal for Maltese Living Overseas
by Prof. Maurice Cauchi
The need to incorporate Maltese living abroad within the general community subsumed within the concept of ‘Greater Malta’ has relevance when one considers the sheer numbers of Maltese living abroad, which now, by all accounts is comparable to and even exceeds the total population of Malta. It is curious also to note that the land mass owned by Maltese living abroad would be many times larger than that of Malta itself!
International meetings like the recent Convention for Maltese living overseas held in March (14-20) may be of little interest to the average Maltese living in Malta or even to the majority of those living overseas, but the long-term effects can be quite significant to the Maltese at home as well as to those living abroad.
Perhaps the most significant development has been the announcements made by the Government Ministers themselves which, it is not an exaggeration to say, have proved to go beyond the wildest expectations of Maltese representatives.
Firstly, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Tonio Borg startled the assembled delegates with the announcement that the Government will be setting up a Council to promote culture and language overseas. This follows the model established by several European countries which have established offices which make available educational and cultural material in various other countries.
It was the unanimous view of those present that every effort should be made to maintain language and culture within the Maltese community overseas, even though this appears to be a considerable task. With regard to language maintenance, it is clear that the children of Maltese migrants are unlikely to speak the language, and therefore there is every possibility that this will disappear in the near future and remain only as a remnant restricted to pockets of isolated communities or to a small group of aficionados. Despite this, every effort should be made to ensure that those who desire to speak the language should be given every opportunity to do so. And it is precisely this aim which a newly-constituted body like a Maltese Cultural Institute would help to maintain.
With regard to culture maintenance, the picture, though not rosy, is at least more optimistic. Maltese migrants who left Malta 50 or 60 years ago carried with them a basic Maltese culture which reflected their origin and their way of life. These pre-Independence migrants, like most of their stay-at-home relatives, where not particularly versed in the finer aspects of Maltese culture. It is therefore of some value to distinguish between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, not to assign any evaluative criterion, but to ensure that one is referring to the same issue. Now while ‘low’ culture, which includes the daily way of life, Maltese food, entertainment, (dinner dances, festas etc) have been well maintained by the Malta-born persons (first generation) as well as by their children (the second generation), the same cannot be said about ‘high’ culture, which includes familiarity with the rich Maltese history, archaeology, arts, and the finer aspects of life. These were never given any priority in the education program prior to Independence and were thus not imbibed by those who left Malta before this time. It is at this level also that a Cultural Institute could, belatedly, try to rescue a dying culture.
The significance of this to young Maltese living abroad is considerable. Any attempt to enrich the repertoire of heritage as seen by them is likely to widen their vista and increase the appreciation of their birth-right. From Malta’s point of view, any publicity relating to the rich treasures available in Malta today can only help to increase the desire to visit and partake of what offerings are available, not only by the Maltese community but by the general community as well.
Reference was also made to the setting up of an ‘institution’ consisting of several members selected by the Minister as well as representation from abroad, to advise the Minister on issues relating to Maltese abroad. The current ‘desk’ within the Ministry was considered to be quite inadequate to deal with the multiple facets associated with servicing the Maltese within the ‘greater Malta’ concept.
Equally impressive were the recommendations made by the Minister for Education, the Hon Dolores Cristina. She provided an 8-point proposal to highlight initiatives meant to help maintain Maltese language and culture and traditions within the Maltese community abroad. These include the provision of scholarships for those wishing to undertake part or all of a specific course in language or culture at the University of Malta, as well as help with the provision of distance learning and dissemination of books from Malta as well as those written by Maltese abroad.
Time will tell to what extent these initiatives are put into operations and what time-frames will be followed.
It is impossible to summarise, even briefly, within the space of few pages all the aspects discussed at this conference. The following will give a taste of issues discussed.
Firstly, the question of ageing Maltese. It was pointed out that half the Maltese-born population overseas is now over the age of 60, and it is quite likely that within 10 years, the population will be reduced to no more than a few thousand world wide. However, their needs currently constitute one of the most urgent and significant within the community, one which many community leaders are worried about. With ageing comes isolation and several measures were put forward to overcome this, including the setting up of a home visiting program to ensure that any major problems are detected early and dealt with. The Maltese government could assist in such programs.
A second major issue was that relating to Maltese-background youth. There seems to be an underlying feeling that young people have their own agenda which very often does not embrace Maltese culture. Reference has already been made to the rapid loss of language increasingly with each subsequent generation, and loss of culture is not far behind. Efforts have been made by many community leaders to encourage young people to maintain contact with their roots, often with less than successful outcome. It was pointed out by one young participant that what the average young Maltese-background person wants is entertainment through main-stream facilities and is not interested in the usual outlets provided by old-fashioned first-generation Maltese.
On the other hand, there seems to be a genuine increase in interest in belonging to the Maltese community. As the Minister Tonio Borg stated, over 16,000 applications for Maltese citizenships have been received over the past 10 years, and while this reflects the interest in opening a gateway into the EU, it also implies an integral connection with the home country.
The topic of citizenship was taken up on the last day of the Conference with informative talks by Mr Joseph Mizzi, Director, Citizenship and Expatriate Affairs Department, and Mr Joe Camilleri, Director General, Social Security Department. Concern was expressed by the length of time taken for processing citizenship applications, which often takes more than a year. Likewise, many showed a considerable degree of confusion in relation to entitlements to pensions, even though the basic regulations relating to reciprocal agreements have been in place for several years.
The last such Convention was held exactly 10 years ago, in 2000. The one before that was held 31 years previously in 1969. It is obvious that conventions held at irregular intervals with long dormant periods in-between cannot be adequate to maintain contact and ensure progress. It is to be hoped that such conferences will be held more regularly in the future. It was a general opinion that a more closely knit community, embracing both the Maltese abroad as well as those living overseas can be to the benefit of both.
The formation of a revamped and functional federation for Maltese living abroad which was discussed by a working group at the conference would be in a position to keep an eye on the effective implementation of all recommendations made at the Conference as well as ensuring that the views of Maltese living abroad are giving an adequately high profile.