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Images and Notes from a Fieldwork Visit to Malta

Marsa Open Centre

  • Marsa Open Centre for Refugees and Asylum Seekers – pictured on the left -- has been run in recent years by an NGO, the Foundation for Shelter and Support to Migrants, but shortly before my visit it was announced that the Maltese government were about to reinstate its direct control over the running of the Centre.
  • As of September 2015, Marsa was one of the largest of seven Open Centres on the island with approximately four hundred male migrants and refugees typically aged between 18 and 34 housed there.
  • With its high perimeter fence, security gates, and moat of stagnant water, it seems oxymoronic to think of this site as being ‘Open’ and from the outside the Centre appears to confirm all my suspicions about the nature of detention centres.
  • The Maltese detention estate has attracted international criticism – in the 2013 case of Aden Ahmed, for example, the European Court ruled that Malta’s conditions of immigration detention amounted to ill-treatment.
  • Marsa, however, is generally well-regarded as a Centre where individuals granted refugee or subsidiary protection status can live with the support of NGOs and migrant activist networks.
  • Looks from the outside can be deceiving – Marsa contains its own shops, restaurants, cinema, mosque, hairdressing salon, all of which are run currently by migrant and refugee communities themselves.
  • Far from a place of boredom, solitude, violence, and poor sanitation then – all of the features I have associated with detention centres and indeed written about in my own work – Marsa is praised by the people we talk to for offering educational opportunities such as courses in craftsmanship, English, and ICT. It is a border community.
  • Social workers and psychologists are able to access relatively freely -- albeit the Maltese Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers did not allow myself and the team to go inside the Centre.
  • The hairdressing salon at Marsa is of particular importance in terms of catering for the needs of refugees and making them feel a sense of belonging to a community – one interviewee, a man in his 30s from Eritrea who has been on the island for 8 years, explained that Maltese hair salons often refuse entry to migrant and refugee communities and so this is the only place he can get a decent hair cut.
  • While detention centres can often be violent sites of exclusion the trip to Marsa made me realise that they can also be sites of inclusion, intellectual productivity and social integration – albeit in spite of their relative seclusion and isolation from the rest of society in this particular case.