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Images and Notes from a Fieldwork Visit to Malta

  • We spend an hour or two inside the Marsa Tavern, as it is known – a popular makeshift café among the Maltese migrant and refugee community immediately opposite the Open Centre.
  • People are drinking water, playing pool, watching sport on TV (the Wi-Fi happens to be down).
  • Some have been on the island for up to a decade; detained initially and then transferred to Marsa upon being granted subsidiary protection status, they visit the Tavern as well as the Centre for friendship, support, education, practical information, and social activities.
  • In June 2015 Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici criticised the role of Open Centres run by NGOs, however, and the future of Marsa is a topic of heated conversation among those at the Tavern.
  • While Centres such as Marsa allow for ‘safe and dignified living conditions and services’, said the Minister, they ‘now faced the challenge of allowing people to move on to the next step at the earliest possible opportunity’ (Times of Malta 24 June 2014).
  • The uncertainty surrounding the future of Marsa and the stories we heard – about the importance of the site as point of contact in an otherwise relatively closed society – brought home to me the dangers of an abstract understanding of the ‘current’ Mediterranean migration crisis in isolation from its multiple geographies and histories.
  • A presentist focus on the crisis ‘as it unfolds’ obscures the fact that this crisis is at least several decades old and with causes centuries in the making and that thousands of migrants and refugees in Malta and across Europe – such as those inside the Centre opposite, but also those around me in the Tavern – are caught in a state of limbo and yet invisible to mainstream media, political attention, and academic research.
  • The risk is that these people and their future are forgotten about and that the longer-term political issues arising from Europe’s colonial past and present are ignored in the service of a collective amnesia.
  • Visiting Malta did not expose me to any of the 91 ‘irregular’ migrants who had made it to the island by boat during 2015 – many of them had already moved on by the time of my trip – but it forced an encounter between my presumptions about the nature and scale of the immediate crisis and those for whom ‘crisis conditions’ had long since become part of everyday life.
  • A haptic gaze of this sort – as reflected in the image in the Tavern above – offers an alternative means of locating the EU’s borders and studying their effects; one that complicates catchall statements about ‘Europe’s Mediterranean migration crisis’, encourages disaggregation of otherwise sweeping generalisations about migrants’ experiences of that ‘crisis’, and demands closer attention to individual understandings and their vernacular expression in historical, geographical, and material contexts.