Having spent years talking about and visiting foodbanks, I didn’t imagine that the first time I would work in one it would be in Valletta, the capital city of Malta.
Malta is a popular holiday destination for many British people. But its place in the middle of the Mediterranean means that it has also been a landing place for many people seeking refuge from conflict, persecution and poverty in Africa and the middle east. Since 2002, 19,000 people have arrived by boat from Libya, though only a third of that number remain on the island.
St Andrew’s Church, a joint Church of Scotland/Methodist Church based in the capital Valletta, has responded to the needs of people arriving in the country. Underneath the church is the Blue Door Language School offering lessons to people who want to improve their English. The African Media Association offers advice and places people in jobs. Malta Microfinance offers small loans to people who need money for things such as education, rent deposit or to start their own businesses. And from the church halls next door, Malta’s only foodbank operates.
The number of people crossing the Mediterranean by boat has dropped from its peak in 2015, to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands, and the number arriving in Malta by boat over the past four years has similarly declined (although the number of people claiming asylum has remained fairly constant).
But the new political atmosphere in Europe has placed Malta in a difficult position. Previously, Search and Rescue vessels usually took rescued migrants to Italian ports. Yet the election of a new government in Italy, which includes the far-right anti-immigration party, the League, meant that this summer ships carrying rescued migrants were refused permission to dock in Italy.
Malta has again begun receiving a few boats, though by agreement other countries are taking responsibility for many of the refugees. Visiting Malta, I heard about that country’s own “hostile environment” under which people seeking asylum have a very limited amount to eat or to live on, and those in camps live in fairly basic conditions behind wire fences.
St Andrew’s Church, working with the Jesuit Refugee Service and a small other number of organisations, have been committed to finding ways of helping migrants in Malta, and challenge the way in which they are treated and seen.
Poverty on the island has increased, partly because of massive increases in rents, which have been forced up largely by the arrival of gambling companies based offshore there. Many Maltese people are now experiencing poverty. The church is now supporting both Maltese and migrants. On the evening I visited the foodbank, 12 of the families were migrants, 2 were from Eastern Europe, and 14 were Maltese.
The church rightly says that the services it provides are for all people who are in need, regardless of their nationality or status. With this message, it has found that donations to the foodbank, for example, have risen enormously.
Malta, and St Andrews Church, are facing the consequences of political and economic change across Europe and beyond. Maltese people and migrants are hurting. When host communities feel threatened for various reasons, it is can be hard to build a welcoming environment. But one contribution that the Church can make is for people to know that it is welcoming to all who need it, for we are all children of God.
Pictures: Top: Volunteers at the food bank. Middle: Rev Kim Hurst, Minister of St Andrews, with the boxes for the foodbank. Bottom: Christina who runs the Blue Door Language School under the church.
This is one of a series of blogs looking at how we can be part of creating a welcoming environment for migrants. Read the others here.