As one of the founders of the Migrants’ Network for Equality, Osman Dicko is keen to stress that many negative beliefs about African immigrants are unfounded. Assuming that they are criminal, or that they live off social benefits, is very much wrong
Now they know that we are not terrorists,” Osman Dicko says at a point in the interview. Mr Dicko is one of the founders of the Migrants’ Network for Equality, which was set up by migrants and asylum seekers from various African countries to lobby on their behalf. The group, he explains, was set up as a reaction to a tragic event: the suicide of a Malian man at the Marsa open centre in 2010.
It also aims to provide immigrants with a voice in the debate on immigration, with Mr Dicko observing that their own viewpoints are rarely listened to. Inevitably, this voice is often needed to challenge concerns that the arrival of asylum seekers has left Malta far worse off.
The group is also firmly opposed to Malta’s detention policy, a policy which its members experienced first-hand.
Mr Dicko is no exception, having arrived in Malta in June 2005 after fleeing his native country, the Ivory Coast, where a civil war had been raging since 2002. That war lasted until 2007, but hostilities flared up again between 2010 and 2011 in the wake of a disputed election.
Fighting broke out again recently, he points out, referring to a spate of fresh attacks which receive relatively little attention overseas.
He spent over a year in detention before being released, and insists that people would find it difficult to believe his experiences there.
On admission to the centre, detainees were stripped naked and checked “everywhere,” Mr Dicko says, expressing his doubts that they would be able to bring weapons into the centre, as has been claimed.
He points out the situation in detention is not helped by the presence of soldiers. Many detainees had fled warzones and had grown wary of soldiers as a result, he observes.
Psychological problems were a common occurrence, and Mr Dicko is also adamant that violence is also routinely used against detained migrants.
He had made a similar assertion last month, ahead of a “walk against institutional racism” commemorating Mamadou Kamara, a Malian man who is believed to have died at the hands of soldiers after caught escaping detention.
During the interview, he refers to the demonstration held by detainees at the Safi detention centre in 2006, which saw detainees being beaten by soldiers in full view of journalists. He notes that while the injuries sustained by officials made the news, no information was released about the larger number of detainees who had to be hospitalised, including a few who required surgical interventions.
His claims, however, do seem to contrast with a recent revelation that no detention officials have ever been reported for violent or racist behaviour. But Mr Dicko’s explanation is simple: detainees do not have much of an opportunity to file reports without fear, a situation ill helped by their lack of access to the press.
When he arrived to Malta, he observes, asylum seekers received little media coverage except for when a boatload arrives, adding that such coverage only helped spread alarm and perpetuate the impression that migrants were dangerous and that an invasion was underway.
Perhaps it is little surprise to hear Mr Dicko maintain that racist discrimination was at a “top level” when he left the detention centre.
“From TV, people got the impression that we are criminals, that we are terrorists, and they were afraid of us,” he maintains.
He objects to being referred to as an “illegal immigrant”, but points out that he is now used to – and largely ignores – the many names used to refer to Africans, citing a number of none-too-complementary terms.
But now that he’s lived in Malta – as a free man – for over five years, Mr Dicko notes that the times are changing, for the better, as the Maltese familiarised themselves with the African immigrants in their midst.
Over the past few years, immigrants have found jobs, made friends, and generally dispelled any myths on their perceived threat.
Change is yet to come in one particular domain, however: Nightclubs. Black people continue to be routinely denied entry for no apparent reason, Mr Dicko notes.
Such discrimination is illegal, but Mr Dicko states that reporting it is a futile effort. Police officers often dismiss reports out of hand, he says, insisting that on occasions, African immigrants were simply asked to leave as soon as they point out that their report concerns Maltese individuals.
The National Commission for the Promotion of Equality encourages migrants to come forward and report discrimination, and once more, reports are low. But if Mr Dicko is any indication, African nationals are far from convinced that their report will get them anywhere. He also adds that immigrants could lose their jobs if they reported their employer, for instance.
And for the vast majority of asylum seekers in Malta, losing one’s job is arguably a more serious problem than it is for Maltese nationals, as Mr Dicko explains. Unless they are recognised as refugees, they are not entitled to unemployment benefits if they are made redundant; making meeting living expenses a far more difficult prospect. They also cannot reapply for the small allowance they had received in open centres before finding employment.
Unsurprisingly, the common perception that African immigrants simply leech off social benefits clearly irks Mr Dicko. He notes that he has been working continuously for the past five years, paying taxes and national insurance contributions as any Maltese worker would, even though he does not get contributory benefits in return.
The MNE has been pushing for this issue to be addressed since it was set up. Only a small minority of asylum seekers are recognised as refugees, although most receive some form of humanitarian protection. As is the case with many West African nationals, Mr Dicko received temporary humanitarian protection after spending a few years in Malta.
The need for immigrants to integrate into Maltese society is often brought up when the issue is discussed, but Mr Dicko insists that he and fellow immigrants are generally doing their best to do so.
“We are trying hard to show the Maltese that we can be one. We don’t want to cause any problems, and we are grateful for the help we received,” he maintains.
But on the other hand, Mr Dicko insists, the government’s support has been lacking, as far as integration is concerned. A lack of effort to effectively put an end to discrimination – such as in Paceville – is one of the examples brought up in the interview.
Mr Dicko also remarks that the perception seems to be that politicians can gain political mileage by positioning themselves as tough on immigration.
Despite the concerns raised, however, Mr Dicko feels at home in Malta, and remains optimistic about the future. Time is proving to be in immigrants’ favour, he states, recounting how workmates who had been hostile to African nationals when he first met them were now his friends. He has also recently started living with his Maltese fiancée, and he notes that he is happy here.
“I will stay in Malta,” he says with a smile, concerns about his status notwithstanding.
Mr Dicko is one of the founders of the Migrants’ Network for Equality, which was set up by migrants and asylum seekers from various African countries to lobby on their behalf.
He arrived in Malta in June 2005 after fleeing his native country, the Ivory Coast, where a civil war had been raging since 2002. That war lasted until 2007, but hostilities flared up again between 2010 and 2011 in the wake of a disputed election. He spent over a year in detention before being released, and insists that people would find it difficult to believe his experiences there. He has lived in Malta as a free man for five years and has turned his attention towards helping Africans and Maltese integrate and live together.