7.3 A Debt Owed
Perhaps it would be of value to summarise at this stage why Malta should be grateful towards migrants, and conscious of their contribution to its wealth and well-being. In a previous chapter, the demographic data was presented in dry statistical fashion to illustrate the magnitude of the migrant exudus and its effect on the population in Malta.
It is well to bear in mind that the migration process is not without its demands on the individual who decided to leave. I shall mention only a few of these:
Sacrifice: Only those who have gone through the process of separation can understand the degree of loss and bereavement that are associated with the process of migration. Leaving one's family and friends, often at a tender age, in order to begin a completely new life in a foreign country can be a decision of gargantuan proportions.
Perhaps the most dramatic episode, (little known in Malta) is that relating to the New Caledonia affair (1916), when Maltese migrants were refused landing in Sydney, and for 6 months they were shuffled hither and thither, isolated on a barge in Sydney harbour like infectious lepers, and then stranded in New Caledonia for months, until a solution was found. This event by itself should be commemorated by a monument in their memory.
Another episode which springs to mind is the wholesale transfer of children to camps in West Australia and elsewhere in the mid 1950s. While done with the best of intentions, the result was not always beneficial to the children involved, as recent condemnation and court actions against those in charge have shown
Danger: These days travel is a reasonably safe undertaking. This was not always so. The number of persons who lost their lives on board ship travelling to their destination is not negligible. Even in recent history we have been faced with Maltese migrants having to abandon a burning ship that was taking them to their destination.
Deprivation: All migrants, but particularly those who have been the pioneers in the migration process have known deprivation. Conditions in host countries (Australia, Canada, etc.) could be quite primitive, requiring all the ingenuity of the new arrivals, to turn a dirt patch into a home and garden. Many would live on a subsistence diet to ensure that they save enough to build their house and give their children a good start in life as well as send money back to Malta to their relatives.
Benefit to the mother country
Population control. As mentioned earlier, the migration process was the best method of population control, a "safety valve" that worked very well particularly for a whole generation in the post-war period. But for migration, the population in Malta would be around 600,000, an increase of 30 per cent on the current levels. This would have been quite unsustainable and would have led to an enormous increase in expense in housing and provision of infrastructure.
Savings from emigration: As the Report of the Department of Emigration for 1955 said, these migrants, had they stayed, "would have required at least 10,000 more housing units. There would also have been "A greater need for water, school space, hospital accommodation and other school equipment. In addition at least 30,000 more jobs would have to be found in Malta". By the end of the migration peak, by mid 1970, these figures would have multiplied at least three-fold.
Income from migrants: For a long time migrants felt the need to support their families in Malta (see below for further details).
Migrants on holiday: Migrants keep coming back for holidays. When they come, they stay for weeks, even months. The average migrant's stay in Malta is equivalent to 10 or more tourist-weeks. The amount spent in Malta is considerable. From my experience, it is not unusual for the ordinary family group on holiday in Malta to spend around AU$ 10,000 over a holiday. Records are not easily available, but there is no doubt about the significance of this contribution
Returned Migrants: A proportion of migrants return to settle back in Malta. These also can be of considerable economic benefit to the mother country. They bring with them a considerable amount of cash to build a house or a business here in Malta, and are often on an overseas pension. Their contribution is not just in monetary terms. They bring with them expertise which could be of significance to Malta.
To all these people, Malta owes a great debt! Appreciating this should help strengthen ties between Maltese in Malta and those living overseas.
Source: Maurice N.Cauchi - The Maltese Migrant Experience, Malta 1999