Waiting to leave: The Hal-Far Open Centres (Part II)
The coordinator of the Hal-Far Tent Village told me that only 5-10% of the men at the Centre worked. This meant that the rest were mostly hanging around the camp or in the immediate vicinity all day. None of the men that I spoke to had been at the Village for less than a year and most for at least 2 or 3. The coordinator said that the main barriers to working were language and cultural differences but the isolation and apathy that comes from hopelessness and frustration could not have helped. As I mentioned before, the bus ride to Valletta (the only major urban area in Malta) was 45 minutes at best and the service was infrequent. Even if the men were lucky enough to find work it would not pay much and would probably be sporadic or seasonal. The temptation to just stay at the Centre and pick up your monthly cheque of around 130 Euros would be high. The other problem was that non of the refugees that I spoke to (and I heard the same from second hand accounts) had any inclination that they might stay in Malta long term and make a life for themselves there. All of them were waiting to be accepted in another country. France, Germany, USA, in their minds anywhere else was more appealing than Malta. To them, Malta was just an eternal waiting room without walls. As we wrapped up our conversation, I asked the coordinator if there was anything he would change about the Centre if he had access to unlimited funds. He said there was not. According to him, the Centre was about as good as it was going to get and a significant improvement over the one in which he worked previously. That one was burned to the ground by migrants in protest over inadequate living conditions. He said they planned to replace all of the tents eventually with pre-fab units. This process had already begun and I saw a few of these around the Centre (I was told these were housing women at the moment due to lack of room at the dedicated women's Open Centre). They were essentially repurposed shipping containers. While certainly more weather-proof than the tents they had even less space and one could imagine what it would be like living in a steel box in 30-plus degree heat.
I explored the Tent Village with the guidance of a French photography student who was doing a documentary project on the Hal-Far Centres. She had been living there for 2 months, spending almost all her days among the migrants, so her perspective on the Centres was invaluable and she was able to offer a very different perspective than the coordinator. My first impression of the tents themselves were that they were woefully inadequate as protection from the elements. They were made from relatively thin canvas containing rabbit warrens of bunk-beds, curtains, and shelves for what few personal belongings the occupants had. I saw mould coating the underside of each tent I entered and I was told they were not at all waterproof. It rains quite a lot in Malta in the winter and everything inside would be soaked. The student told me that in the summer the tents were 5 degrees hotter than outside and the winter they had no way of keeping out the cold air (it can go down to below 5 degrees in Maltese winter with strong winds).
I was introduced to a few of the migrants at the Tent Village and one of them invited us into his tent. Some of the bunks were arranged to create small sitting or lounging areas and we sat in one of these areas. Many of the other bunks were occupied with sleeping men even though it was by then 1030 in the morning. There was really very little else to do in the Village. There was an open-sided tent with an old TV showing news or sports with chairs arranged in a semi-circle and a small kitchen that was no longer used. The migrants received 3 meals a day at the camp that were provided by the government but most of the tents that I saw usually had at least one gas-burning stove and a pot for making tea. Apparently somewhere there was a place that the migrants could use the internet but I did not get to see this. The interiors of the tents, while extremely crowded and stuffy in the heat generally appeared clean, however the passages between tents were littered with waste, standing water, and flies were everywhere.
The refugee we spoke with had come over from Somalia. As we sat on the edge of some bunks in his tent lounge while he sat on an old carpet on the floor and told us he had been living at Hal-Far Tent Village for 3 years. He did not work and had only been to Valletta once or twice. He and others were trying to learn French so they could apply to live in France. Life at this Centre was largely made up of waiting and hoping for something better.