Bridging differences: migration and integration in the Mediterranean
April 27, 2018
By Angelina Mendes, PhD student
On a sunny Friday afternoon in the blazing March winter sun, I arrived to the little known and beautiful country of Malta. Malta is a relatively small island archipelago located in the central Mediterranean Sea between Northern Africa and Southern Europe. With just 148 square miles and a population of approximately 430,000, religion (Roman Catholicism), history, and beauty are Malta’s raison d’être. Centuries of invasions and rulers from various powers, including the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Sicilians, Arabs, French, and British have intricately shaped Maltese society. As a former British colony during World War II the island of Malta also served as a strategic base for the allied powers. But in more recent years, and especially since its ascension to the European Union in 2004, the small island nation of Malta has become a central focus in the European migration phenomenon. Migrants, refugees and asylum seekers fleeing various precarious situations in search of refuge via treacherous Mediterranean Sea journeys have landed on Malta’s shores, sometimes under the impression that they have arrived to Italy, a preferred European asylum destination. It is this occurrence of contemporary human flows that brought me to Malta’s shimmering shores, and it’s historic, golden, walled capital city of Valetta.
As part of a group of seventeen graduate students and two instructors, I travelled to Malta during March 2018 to conduct research and learn more about migration and integration in the Mediterranean, with emphasis on the Maltese context. This study abroad course titled ‘Bridging Differences: Migration and Integration in the Mediterranean (Malta),’ is offered through George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution (S-CAR). As a current PhD student in the S-CAR program with a research focus on migration (and forced migration), refugees, peacebuilding, and the gender dynamics of conflict, this practice-oriented study abroad course was a perfect fit for my academic interests. The opportunity to interact with, learn from, and facilitate discussions between migrants (mostly women) from all over the world who find themselves in Malta at this divisive moment in European migration politics was an invaluable experience that has deeply enriched and expanded my own understanding. These interactions brought to life the many trials and triumphs we face as practitioners and researchers in the field. This trip was also a great immersion into Maltese culture, and a wonderful opportunity to foster lasting connections and collaborate with a diverse group of students, academics, practitioners, and partners, who all brought a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and warm camaraderie to each day we shared in Malta. While migration and integration are a contentious issue in Malta, one of the key insights that emerged for me during this trip was the sincere willingness of people from all sides of the migration spectrum to engage in meaningful dialogue, including migrants themselves and local Maltese who support the integration of migrants into Maltese society, and those who favor exclusionary policies.
During one of our projects titled ‘Building Sanctuary: A Space for Women to Share Experiences,’ we engaged with female migrant community leaders from Libya, Sudan, Serbia, Somalia, Philippines, Morocco, Venezuela, and Pakistan among other countries. The sense of resilience, strength, wisdom and sisterhood that encapsulated this event was a testament to the power of these women’s human spirit and to the ongoing challenges faced by their respective migrant communities in Malta. With its stunning cathedrals, ancient cities, unique culture, picturesque harbors, warm sunshine, and wonderful people, Malta is both a vibrant tourist haven and a key juncture in Mediterranean migratory routes. It is at once a picturesque haven, and an island nation caught between those who favor exclusion and those who welcome integration. I am deeply grateful to the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution for the support and funding they provided that allowed me to participate in this rare opportunity in Malta.