Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Immigration works in the Long Term: Malta and Cyprus

Last year in May Malta celebrated its first Maltese saint: that very same week Malta (and Libya) refused to save African immigrants who were clinging for dear life on fishing nets in high seas. The immigrants were saved by a Spanish Ship, which was refused entry by the Maltese authorities.

Immigration is a very sensitive issue for Malta: despite the relatively small number of emigrants that have come to Malta their presence has been acutely felt by the indigenous population of the Maltese islands.

For an island that “exported” large amounts of immigrants across the Mediterranean and beyond, Malta has been historically unsympathetic to immigration. The newly installed Maltese government of 1921 staunchly refused to accept any of the thousands of “White Russians” that were forced out of the Crimean by their defeat by the Bolsheviks. The island again refused to accommodate their fellow Maltese: the Maltese community that was forced out of Smyrna (modern day Izmir) with Kemal’s Victory in 1923 had to find refuge in Cyprus and other Mediterranean islands as the Maltese government objected to their return.

I understand the main argument of the non-immigrant movement in Malta: rightly proud of their history, the “no” branch worries that a massive influx of immigrants will erode the culture and religion that makes the Maltese so unique. This is combined the working class belief that the island is overpopulated and that immigrants will take the jobs of the rightful indigenous population. The combination of these two ideas can be powerful, violent and destructive: it is no wonder then that all governments try to accommodate a hard view on immigration.

However Cyprus can prove that this belief can be fallacious. Cyprus took a very large amount of Russian refugees in 1920 – 1921, as well as even larger amount of refugees leaving Turkey in 1923, as well as great number of Jewish immigrants. The result was positive for Cyprus: despite a large underemployment in the overwhelming rural economy, the new entrants brought with them urban knowledge and skills that were previously lacking. The effects of the successful integration are still seen today: From the successful orange groves of Fasouri (set up by Jewish entrepreneurs), to the Cypriot “Kefaloturi” Cheese (manufactured by Asia-minor immigrants), and the strong connection to Russia, the positive influences of such waves of emigration are around us.

Cyprus currently has the highest number of non-Europeans inhabitants per capita of indigenous people, and that can only be a good thing. From the Bakery and Russian Language skills of the Georgian Greeks (themselves refugees from modern conflicts) to the entrepreneurial skills of Halal butchers, Cyprus can benefit form the foreign people who so willingly do the jobs we just don’t want to do any more. Let us hope that unlike Malta, Cyprus can keep the powerful feelings of anti-immigration at bay.

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