7.1 Migrants - Perceptions and Misconceptions

Throughout history, waves of people have been on the move, trekking from one place to another in search of better living conditions. The urge to explore unknown lands has been with us since the ice ages.

Maltese migration has been a historical fact over the past 150 years when Maltese left these islands to settle around the Mediterranean littoral, from Algiers to Corfu. (See Price 1954). Since the beginning of this century, migrants started to travel to far away places like Brazil, Australia, Canada and the USA.

By far the most significant movement of Maltese occurred after the Second World War. In the 1950s, the rate of emigration reached 11,000 in one year. This was indeed a mass exodus. Whole villages, particularly in Gozo were practically depleted of able-bodied men. What started, as a trickle became a chain-reaction, with one settler encouraging his family members and friends to up and go.

Living conditions in the new land were often tough. Groups of young men living in a tin shed in unmade roads, travelling in gangs to work every morning and returning to their digs to sleep the night. Weekends were occasions for drinking and dancing and socialising.

Many could not take the strain of separation and hardship for more than a few months, and returned back, disillusioned. Most others managed to save enough to come back to Malta find a wife and return, to build a house and start a family.

Migrants who left Malta 40 or 50 years ago were typical enough of the people found in the villages in Malta at the time. The proportion that had secondary education was small, and those with tertiary education were practically non-existent. Their grasp of the English language was no better than that of their compatriots they left behind. Their will to work was however gargantuan and this was to be their salvation.

In the 1980s, another type of migrant started to leave Malta - persons and their families who were better educated, who had a respectable job in Malta, but who for political reasons found the going too hot. These migrants expected far more of life than the original group, and were largely and for a long time disappointed with what they found in Australia. Some came to grips with life and managed to overcome the original difficulties and made a career for themselves. Most others decided to return to Malta as soon as the political climate permitted them to do so.

In Australia today, where the majority of those who left Malta have made their home, Maltese migrants have, in the words of the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Senator Nick Bolkus, "been a significant presence in Australian Society". (BIMPR Bulletin, 1995)

Some Misconceptions

One gets the impression that the Maltese in Malta expect their compatriots overseas to shed their 'malteseness' overnight, speak the language of the host country to perfection, accept the new mores and forget the old, and in general assimilate to the point of growing fair hair and freckles. Even if this were desirable, has any one ever considered how difficult this is? One has become familiar with the presence of foreigners living in Malta now for decades. How many of them can be mistaken for true-blue Maltese natives? How many can speak our tongue, become Maltese citizens, take an interest in Maltese politics and culture, and in general become integrated with us. And how many of us are prepared to accept them as equals in all respects? And yet, this is what many expect of our migrants living overseas.

An integrationist view and more recently the philosophy of multiculturalism have replaced this assimilationist idea, common in the 1950s. The reasons for this shift of emphasis are obvious and merely reflect the fact that assimilationist philosophy was a failure. The paraphernalia that we carry with us, with which we are born, or which we accumulate as we grow, and which make us members of an individual, distinct and unique culture, are not easy to shed off without at the same time discarding an integral part of ourselves, a destructive process which in many cases results in self-annihilation.

Recent work support the concept that the migrants who are most successful in settling in a foreign land are not those who are encouraged to drop all connections with the culture of origin, but, on the contrary, those who maintain the strongest possible links with the past. In Australia, as in New York and elsewhere, the Jewish migrants of the 1930s and later made the strongest impact on academic and social life in general precisely because of their proverbial attachments to their biblical roots. More recently, those ethnic groups with strong cultural backgrounds, particularly south-east Asians, have likewise made considerable inroads into the academic world and are well on the way to have a considerable impact on society. Those with a weak support system; whose culture was on the point of extinction, did the worst of the lot.

It is therefore the more the pity that multiculturalism is looked at with suspicion in certain quarters. In particular, a brand of American multiculturalism has become associated with divisiveness and anti-establishment tendencies. This in my opinion is a reflection on the method of application of one particular brand of multiculturalism, and is not really a fair test of the system. In countries like Australia and Canada, multi-culturalism has provided a modus vivendi for those with different cultures, which is the envy of many other places ridden with ethnic strife. Indeed multiculturalism appears to be the only philosophy that makes sense in a nation made up of dozens of different cultural sub-groups who have little in common, except for their striving to make a new home in a new land.

What does the migrant expect from the mother country?

In spite of, or because of the long distances involved, and the resultant relative isolation from Malta, the average migrant is still very keen to keep some degree of contact with the old country. It is very expensive to get Maltese papers, particularly by airmail - any other way would render the news they contain very stale indeed. Radio and television are the only realistic way of communicating. In both Australia and Canada, and to a lesser extent in other countries where there are sizeable populations of Maltese migrants, there are programmes in the Maltese language, run largely by volunteer organisations, but some also government sponsored (e.g. SBS in Australia). But for a long time it was the lack of any input from the mother country that was obviously missing: it has proven almost impossible for the local broadcasting bodies to provide programmes on a regular basis which contain more than the usual greetings from one family group to another. The situation has improved somewhat in recent years with the appointment of an ex-migrant to the post of chairman of the Public Broadcasting Service.

Great efforts have also been made, usually by the migrants themselves to promote Maltese language and literature in the new country. Libraries of Maltese books and tapes can be found in a few localities, and are being made use of by an increasing section of the population. Closer liaison between local bodies interested in language, literature and culture in general and there overseas counterparts should be encouraged

Exchange programmes can be of great help in this area. The first such cultural agreements was signed by the University of Malta and the Western Institute (now The Victoria University of Technology) in 1989. This has been followed by visits by several members from that institute, culminating with a visit from a high power delegation in April 1997. An increased effort is being made to encourage more students of Maltese origin to do some of their studies here in Malta, and vice versa. Teacher exchange would also be of considerable benefit in enabling better understanding of the cultural background of Maltese migrants.

Problems faced by the returning migrant

Many of the problems faced by migrants when they return to Malta. They start when one has to deal with the ante-deluvian chaos reigning in the Custom House. Then one has to face innumerable procedures, like obtaining a driving licence which could take six months, renting accommodation which is difficult to find if you happen to have a Maltese nationality (through a quirk in Maltese law which has only recently -and partially - been corrected). Those who have become familiar with the relatively straightforward procedures overseas are bound to get a stunning culture shock.

Another major issue relates to young returned migrants who are finding it tough going in Maltese schools. The philosophy of education system practised in one country appears to be diametrically opposite to anything practised in the other. Intense spoon feeding from the age of three is considered by most educationalists to be a sadistic exercise bound to cause neuronal shrinkage at an early age. Primary education, should be an exercise in social rehabilitation and not a period where a mass of indigestible material is memorised. A variety of extra-curricular activities should be encouraged. The real work should be left to the senior stages of secondary school in preparation for matriculation.

When the children of returned migrants find themselves in the sort of rat race typified by the Maltese education system they become obviously lost. Their knowledge of Maltese is deficient or non-existent. Their religious studies are suspect. They invariably find themselves in class at least one year behind their classmates. There are no special teachers to help them bridge the gap. The result is a complete loss of interest.

In countries where migrants form a considerable proportion of the population, special teachers are provided to help bring the level of knowledge, particularly of the host language, up to standard. This would appear to be a particularly necessary requirement for this group of students if they are ever going to be rehabilitated.

Some Recent Changes in Legislation

Great strides have been made in the last few years to close the yawning gap between those citizens who left and those who stayed behind.

On of the most significant was the double citizenship agreement. This agreement had a psychological effect, which far outstripped its practical value. To most migrants, the right to be a Maltese citizen is one which is greatly valued. It was one of the main reasons why Maltese overseas had been so reluctant to apply for citizenship in their host country. In Australia, for instance, the rate of application for Australian citizenship by Maltese was one of the lowest of all ethnic groups.

It is a pity in this respect that it was thought fit to deprive children born overseas to Maltese nationals of this right. The paranoia behind this act of exclusion is derived from a fear that many thousands of second generation Maltese would descend on Malta and add to its over-population problem. Such a preposterous concept could easily have been dispelled if the views of second-generation Maltese living overseas were actually sought. It could easily be confirmed by checking on the number of those who have actually sought to settle in the past several years. Statistical information relating to this aspect is readily available (see Chapter 1), but is having problems penetrating through and becoming accepted wisdom.

A second important piece of legislation relates to the pension agreements between the two countries. The number of years worked in one country would now count for the purpose of assessment of allowable pensions. Previous to this arrangement, a person working in a country for less than a specified number of years (say 10 years) would not have been eligible for a (portion of a) pension from that country. All that is now changed in theory, although in practice there are still a number of problems associated with the actual delivery of the scheme.

Thirdly, the health agreement between Malta and a number of other countries has meant a considerable peace of mind for those who tend to visit the mother country every so often.

Where do we go from here?

We have now reached the stage where emigration has become a trickle of no more than a couple of hundred a year. The number of returning migrants has come down to a few hundred per annum, and I expect this number to dwindle even further as the years go on. The reason for this is that returning migrants are mainly made up of first-generation families who would like their children to grow up in the familiar Maltese environment and who decide to leave before their children become too hard to uproot. The number of families in this category must be dwindling very fast. Another category would be that of persons of pensionable age who would prefer to spend their last few years in the old country. Again, the vast majority of migrants who left in the 1950s and 60s have already reached this venerable age, and have taken their final decision about their future. So we shouldn't expect a deluge of migrants to invade, however prosperous and attractive we think Malta has become.

I sincerely believe that Malta owes an enormous amount to migrants. They left at a time of considerable economic hardship, thereby easing the employment problem. Their commitment to the extended family they left behind meant that millions of dollars poured back into Malta. Those who came to settle back have contributed considerably to the local economy: It is enough to behold the palatial buildings of ex-migrants proudly displaying evidence of their oversees connection, including eagles or kangaroos that decorate their front porch, or the hoisting of foreign flags on festa days. It would be no exaggeration to postulate that the economy of Malta (and of Gozo in particular) owes an enormous amount to the funds and expertise brought back by returning migrants.

Even now, the 5000 migrants who come back to visit their relatives and friend every year, staying for two or three months (equivalent to 50,000 tourist-weeks per annum) contribute generously to the economy.

The financial input is only one side of the story. Many have lived overseas for several years during which time they have acquired new skills and opened for themselves new horizons, which they would never have done if they had stayed at home. This they are bound to share with their compatriots on their return.

Is anything expected in return?

I believe we are now well past the stage of expecting the Maltese government to take an active role in the welfare of its citizens overseas. However there are still two areas where any responsible Maltese would, I suggest, have some concerns:

Firstly, there is the case of the first generation elderly Maltese who now find that they cannot cope any longer by themselves and require assistance. Many of these have still only Maltese citizenship because they never bothered to apply for any other. Many have a poor and failing grasp of English language. Many have no more friends or family. I believe it is the responsibility of the Maltese government also to keep a close look at this group of persons to ensure that their last few years are made as comfortable as possible.

A second area of responsibility is the provision of a cultural link between Malta and overseas countries where substantial numbers of Maltese reside. Maltese migrants have always suffered from belonging to a tiny country with limited resources, and therefore expectations for cultural support were not inflated. I do not believe that this excuse for inaction is valid any longer. We have fallen far behind other nations in this respect. Indeed, when the proportion of Maltese citizens overseas reaches 50% of the total citizenry, one would expect a much higher level of activity in this area. The setting up of the Commission for Maltese Abroad was a good idea which has been allowed to flounder from a complete lack of interest by successive ministers responsible for this area. Indeed any real contact between Malta and migrants has taken place through volunteer organisations. This is to be deplored.

Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999

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