NEWS | Sunday, 28 September 2008

Asylum seekers go back home with new hopes

As Malta this week wrestled with the EU over the influx of asylum seekers, which this year totalled the 2,300 mark, a small step was made with the first publicised departures this week of African boat-people under the DAR voluntary repatriation programme. Charlot Zahra reports

There was an unusual sight when I arrived at the Departures Lounge at the Malta International Airport on Thursday morning. Besides the usual bustle of tourists and Maltese making their way around – some of them waiting for their flights, others accompanying their loved ones who are on their way abroad – a young Ghanaian couple stood out.
Abigail Bucknan, her husband and his young son are making a first for themselves as well as for the country that has hosted them, albeit rather unwillingly, for the past two years.
They formed part of a group of four Ghanaian migrants who left from Malta on Thursday as part of the DAR voluntary repatriation programme. Another Ghanaian left earlier this week, while an Ethiopian national left on Friday.
By the end of this week, a total of 20 migrants would have been sent back home under the 18-month DAR programme, which ends in January next year.
Although the repatriation programme started in May, it was only this week that the media were alerted about the existence of the programme by the Foreign Affairs Ministry in the light of increasing pressure in the media from right-wing elements who are clamouring for the repatriation of the ever-increasing population of asylum seekers in Malta.
The programme is a joint initiative of the Maltese Foreign Affairs Ministry, SOS Malta, and Med-Europe of Italy, and is co-funded by the European Union (EU).
However the network of organizations lending a helping hand, including Suret il-Bniedem, the Police, ETC, OIWAS, the Open and Closed Centres, and Emigrants' Commission, among others, is quite extensive.
Asked by MaltaToday why she chose to leave Malta voluntarily, Bucknan candidly said: “I just want to go home and establish something.”
“I came by flight from Ghana regularly but I overstayed my visa, so we were kept in a detention centre. I was pregnant when I arrived here, and God gave me a young boy,” she said as she held her son high up.
“I have decided to go and start up a business as a flower arranger,” the young woman said when asked by MaltaToday about the type of business that she wants to set up.
The fourth migrant, Adam Seduk, explained how he came to Malta together with other asylum seekers on a boat from North Africa 18 months ago and was kept at the Hal Far closed centre.
“During the Summer we suffered a lot because of the heat,” Seduk complained.
Asked by MaltaToday whether he was afraid to go back home, Seduk said candidly: “I am not.”
Seduk said that he learnt a lot from his stay in Malta. “I learnt how to do masonry work and experience of living in a community, which is priceless. We learnt a lot of things when we went out to do electrical work at the detention centre.
“Before I came here I had no work, so when I go home, I can do something,” he said with a grin on his face.
Asked by MaltaToday about his plans for the future now that was returning to Ghana, explained that “since I have learnt how to do building work here, I am going to establish a hardware store once I go back home.”
Leslie Agius, who is coordinating the aptly-named DAR project, said that under this pilot project, which is co-financed by the European Union (EU), 50 asylum seekers will be voluntarily repatriated by the end of January next year.
“This is Malta’s first experience with assisted voluntary repatriation (AVR), therefore we are still learning how the system works out. We will be analysing what went well and what went badly.
“We hope to be moving towards other similar projects in the future,” Agius told MaltaToday.
He explained that it was not easy to convince asylum seekers to leave the country of asylum on a voluntary basis. “Do not forget that they would have spent a lot of money to cross the Libyan desert, and then to come to Malta.
“Some of them would have also been close to drowning during their boat journey to Malta and may even have lost their loved ones as a result,” Agius told Malta Today.
The DAR programme is open to all irregular migrants currently in Malta, be they still in detention or living in the open centres or elsewhere.
Agius said that there was “considerable interest” in the programme by various irregular migrants. “At first there was interest from Ghanaians and Nigerians, who are the most numerous of the nationalities present in Malta. “However now there is also considerable interest from other nationalities, such as Mali, Niger and Ethiopia, among others,” he explained.
Each of the asylum seekers received a sum of €5,000 each from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to help them to start up their lives again in their countries of origin upon their return.
Asked whether this sum of money could be used to make another journey to somewhere else in Europe, Agius replied: “I don’t think that they will come back to Malta to go back to detention.”
“The aim of this project is that with the sum of money that we give them, they will be able to resettle in their home countries in a business or other job. Hence they will not have a reason for which they would want to leave their country and come back to Malta,” he insisted.
Asked whether this was too slow a process in view of the thousands of asylum seekers who arrived in Malta this year, Agius told MaltaToday: “This is indeed true, however this is a humane means of repatriating people. You can also send them through forced repatriation, handcuffed on both sides of an airplane with a police officer on either side, which is not pleasant for them.
“With assisted voluntary repatriation, they can go back home with their heads high as they have a sum of money in their hands, they can establish a business and meet their families again. Hence there are many positive elements to this,” Agius insisted.
He said that 70% of the funding for this programme was paid by the EU. “If we had to consider how much it would costs Malta to keep them in detention, then the Government has come better off with voluntary repatriation,” Agius told MaltaToday.
Since, at the time of the project start-up there was no AVR experience in Malta, the project team organised educational visits to the United Kingdom (UK), Denmark and Switzerland to observe how these countries handled migration issues in general and AVR in particular.
Later, in order to get the view from the other side, the team visited Sudan and Ghana. “These visits provided very useful information which DAR adopted, sometimes in an altered format to suit our particular needs, and gave the team the opportunity to establish high-level contact with immigration authorities of all these countries,” a spokesperson for the Maltese Foreign Affairs Ministry told MaltaToday.
The visits to the African countries also established links with the IOM offices there for the reception and assistance to returnees once they arrive back home.


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