Refugee-led Community Organisations in Malta: Advocating about issues directly impacting refugees. In a way that really reflects refugees.

Carla Camilleri, Assistant Director

Arrival in Malta

Malta starting receiving significant numbers of refugees in the mid-90’s. However, it was not until 2001 and 2002 that large numbers started arriving by boat from North Africa, Libya in particular. Most of those arriving in Malta through this route were from Sub-Saharan Africa, however in recent years Syrians and Libyans make up the largest groups in terms of arrivals.

Between 2002 and 2013 Malta received an average of 1700 boat arrivals per year. From 2014, there was a marked decrease in the number of boat arrivals through the central Mediterranean route, which was offset by an increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving by plane. From June 2018, arrivals of asylum-seekers rescued at sea resumed with 7132 persons rescued between 2018 and 2020.

Refugees and their organisations

The the exact number of refugee-led community organisations (RCOs) present in Malta is unknown. However, there exist a number of diaspora organisations reflecting the variety of nationalities residing in Malta that have formally registered as non-governmental organisations, whilst others have a looser organisational structure.

There are currently around 10 refugee-led or migrant-led organisations that focus on refugee issues. Some are diaspora organisations that are representatives of the peoples that come from countries from which refugees originate (e.g. Syrian Solidarity in Malta, Sudanese Community Malta, Eritrean Migrant Community Association and others), whilst others have a more sectoral approach (e.g. Migrant Women Association Malta, Spark15). Furthermore, there are diaspora organisations, such as the African RCOs, that have created platforms that consist of members from different groups.

NGOs working with refugees recently established the Malta Refugee Council, as an informal network to coordinate our advocacy work for the betterment of refugees’ lives in Malta.

Their voice

It is interesting to note that the emergence of RCOs is a relatively new phenomenon in Malta, and we could say that we are seeing ‘first generation’ type RCOs with varying levels of expertise and organisation.

There have been a variety of triggers for the formation of RCOs. The triggers depended on the different situation of the members of those communities. The Eritrean community was set-up once resettlement from Malta was completed and in order to focus on integration, whilst the Ivorian community was set up to address the issues of detention that they faced in the early 2000s.

The main aim is to gather … in one place, have fun, activities, campaigns learn from each other, support each other, and share our struggles

Representative of Syrian Solidarity in Malta.

The struggles that they speak of include legal, structural and policy issues that exist in Malta and that have been largely created without the participation of the individuals that are directly effected by them:

  • The reception and asylum systems which are under severe strain and which lead to delays in accessing the asylum procedure and a degeneration in reception conditions generally.
  • The policy of mandatory detention which has been re-introduced, after its removal in 2015.
  • Restrictive laws and the lack of a comprehensive policy framework that regulate permanent settlement, family reunification, citizenship, access to benefits and local integration.
  • Accessing the labour market and/or securing stable employment, remains difficult and the social support provided extremely limited.
  • The public discourse surrounding migration which is a negative one that dehumanises asylum-seekers and refugees and treats them as social burdens.
  • The spreading of verbal violence and racial abuse by groups and individuals on social media, particularly on Facebook.
  • An increasingly hostile environment which came to a head in 2019, when Lassana Cisse was shot dead and another two-men injured in a racially motivated attack by two off-duty army officers.

Engaging in a political environment

Although the presence of refugees in Malta spans almost three decades, the presence of RCOs and their active engagement in political discourse remains limited. Throughout the years there has been little contact with government stakeholders to discuss issues that are relevant to their communities which range from social welfare to health, from detention to access to justice, and from integration to citizenship. Although there has been some collaboration on the local level, engagement at policy and legislative level has been severely lacking and this is a missed opportunity as RCOs are key in…

…advocating about issues that are directly impacting refugees. In a way that really reflect refugees.

Representative of the Eritrean Migrant Community Association.

Non-refugee-led organisations have been on the forefront of advocating for refugee rights in the past years, however there is a need to break the dichotomy that they are consulted as the “experts” and RCOs are sought out solely for their “experience”. This is not always easy to achieve as RCOs face a number of challenges which non-refugee-led organisation do not and this in turn effects the efficiency and effectiveness of their organisations.

Primarily, most of the people working with RCOs do so on a voluntary basis, whilst juggling full-time employment or education and family life. This was found to affect many aspects of keeping an NGO running: registering, reporting, funding and working on projects. Consequently, the majority of RCOs in Malta were unable to apply for public or project finding due to a lack of capacity to fulfil the obligations required by funding programmes.

Furthermore, the lack of office space or the funding to rent office space is a major challenge. The lack of space from which to operate effects the efficiency of the organisation but also has an impact on the lack of privacy and confidentiality that is needed at times.

Importantly, many refugees see Malta as a ‘stop’ before moving to mainland Europe and therefore there is a high turnover of volunteers and a lack of commitment to long-term visions and projects. It was also difficult to find skilled persons to volunteer. Many also did not have hope and motivation that the work done by RCOs would lead to a change in integration strategies, policies and legislation.

However, in spite of the lack of time and money, many RCOs have had a tangible impact on the lives of their members, if not so much on policy and legislation. This was through financial assistance to the members of the community, assistance to homeless refugees, counselling sessions, training of members and language lessons.

Untapped resource

We have spoken a long time ago with the Home Affairs and Security. We exchanged letters regarding our situation… 2 years after we were able to meet them.

Representative of the Sudanese Community Malta.

As mentioned above, there has been limited engagement by the major players within Government with RCOs. Many RCOs feel that although as they try to engage with Government their response was limited.

RCOs present an untapped resource that can not only offer services to members of the community but can offer valid contributions to legislative consultations and can raise protection concerns and gaps that their communities are facing.

Government should be more open to having discussions with RCOs on issues of concern, policies and legislative changes. This would need to be done by having an open and transparent process when legislative or policy changes are being discussed. Furthermore, there needs to be an open dialogue between Government and RCOs on key issues such as detention, rescue at sea and the asylum process.

In conjunction with improved collaboration, there needs to be an equitable method of supporting RCOs through financial assistance, the provision of office space and support in setting up and administering a voluntary organisation.

This article was written on the basis of the findings and interviews carried out within the framework of the project Training Kit for Empowering Refugee-Led Community Organisations supported by Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union.

This project is being implemented by the following organisations: aditus foundation, Cyprus Refugee Council, Dutch Refugee Council, European Council on Refugees and Exiles, Greek Forum of Refugees, Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta), Mosaico – Azioni per i rifugiati. With Syrian Volunteers Netherlands as Associated Partners.

For further information visit the project webpage, where you will find the national reports on refugee-led organisations in all the participating countries (including the EU-level aspect) as well as other project publications.

Understanding the difference between an Asylum-Seeker, a Refugee and a Migrant.


Hi All! I hope you’re all doing great and enjoying the last bit of summer! This week I am going to talk about a subject around which there are a lot of misconceptions. I am going to be explaining the difference between an asylum-seeker, a refugee and a migrant.

The terms  ‘asylum-seeker’, ‘refugee’,and ‘migrant’ are used to describe people who are moving: who have left their country of origin and have crossed borders. The terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ are often used similarly, but it is important to distinguish between them as there is a legal difference.

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Joint Statement: The Pact on Migration and Asylum: to provide a fresh start and avoid past mistakes, risky elements need to be addressed and positive aspects need to be expanded


(This Joint Statement may be downloaded here, and the shorter version may be found here.)

The commitment to a more human approach to protection and the emphasis on the fact that migration is needed and positive for Europe with which the European Commission launched the Pact on Migration and Asylum is welcome. However, this rhetoric is reflected only sparsely in the related proposals. Instead of breaking with the fallacies of the EU’s previous approach and offering a fresh start, the Pact risks exacerbating the focus on externalisation, deterrence, containment and return.

This initial assessment by civil society of the legislative and non-legislative proposals is guided by the following questions:

  • Are the proposals able to guarantee in law and in practice compliance with international and EU legal standards?
  • Will they contribute to a fairer sharing of responsibility for asylum in Europe and globally?
  • Will they work in practice?
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Our community is as healthy as all of its members – NGO Press Release on the human rights of migrants in the current epidemic

“COVID-19 is a test for our societies, and we are all learning and adapting as we respond to the virus. Human dignity and rights need to be front and centre in that effort, not an afterthought.”

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

It is appalling to hear Government talk of non-Maltese nationals without acknowledging their humanity and – in many cases – their vulnerability. Recent statements by the Economy Minister are, at best, extremely naive and, at worst, reveal a sheer lack of compassion and humanity. Thousands of non-Maltese men, women and children cannot be abandoned to a situation of absolute precarity. Their health and livelihood must be safeguarded in order to respect their dignity and also to prevent any threats to public health. When the nation is facing such challenging times, words of support and encouragement are far more productive than careless talk of unemployment and deportations. Under all circumstances our humanity and decency must prevail.

Over the past weeks it has become clear that the Coronavirus epidemic is going to have a severe economic impact resulting in large numbers of non-Maltese nationals losing their jobs almost overnight. If unmitigated, this large-scale and sudden unemployment will trigger a worrying chain of events that has the potential of ruining the lives of thousands of people. With migrants’ residence in Malta dependent on them holding a work permit, the immediate consequence of their job loss would be the withdrawal of their right to remain in Malta.

Migrants who until a few days ago were working, paying taxes and social security contributions, renting homes, attending classes and making Malta home will suddenly become “prohibited persons” under Malta’s immigration laws. As bluntly highlighted by the Economy Minister, this will mean one thing: returns to home countries and, possibly, detention and deportation.

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Book Launch: Our Island II: Personal Accounts of Refugees in Malta

There are circumstances you find yourself in that absolutely strip you of all human dignity. It is a painful thing.

When people look at refugees…sometimes they’ve been through so much, just let them be. They don’t want to trouble you. They just want to fit in.

I know the feeling because that’s what I have always wanted, just a place I can say, “Look, I’m home.”


Our Island II: Personal Accounts of Refugees in Malta gives space to 12 refugee and migrant stories to speak for themselves. It presents stories reflecting differences in the time spent in Malta, cultural and national background, gender, sexual orientation and gender identity, age, education and profession and family composition, here and away.

Our Island II also attempts to span a wide range of emotions and experiences: the anxiety caused by being locked up, surprise at a Maltese woman’s flirtatiousness, peer pressure within one’s own ethnic community, helplessness at being perpetually undocumented, pure joy at being united with family members, stress due to the constant need to ‘integrate’.

So when we said we were going to get married, some people were thinking, “An African marriage? How could it be nice?” But as soon as they arrived at our wedding, they were surprised at how people were, and at how people dressed…

People wore traditional clothes, and just like my boss, they were all dancing! When African music is put on, you not only want to listen, you want to move!

That’s why it was so much fun.


12 stories: Nicky, Adil, Farah, Michael, Mary, Sekou, Agnes, Omar, Emad, Dursa, Hana, Ousman. Well, 11 stories and Emad’s poem. As you read through the stories, you will be invited into 12 very different worlds. You will get to know our contributors and be given a glimpse of their lives in Malta. They are indeed very different worlds, yet united by possibly two significant elements: the relationship between Malta and all narrators is based on otherness; and their protagonists are, quite honestly, regular people.

Our Island II will be launched on the 10th May 2019 at the Casino Maltese, Valletta. For more information email: [email protected]