An evening at frekwenzi

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited by my friend Mark Azzopardi to be a guest on Frekwenzi, a great talk show hosted on NET TV to discuss current events and debates in Malta. In the episode we discussed one of the most talked about topics in this small and beautiful Mediterranean island: the relationship between foreigners and locals. In the show I was accompanied by three other guests: Lorena from Mexico, Annija from Latvia and Jason from the UK. On top of sharing our thoughts on the issue, I was pleased to bring to the table some broader discussions about migration narratives, public attitudes, perceptions and attitudes which I have been working on over the past few years.

In particular, a point I wanted to get across is that certain phenomena of uneasiness or fear of something new when welcoming a sudden influx of newcomers is common to most places. Back in 2005 I lived in Ireland for a period of time and I could still see back then some of the same rhetoric I see, read and listen to in Malta today. This is pretty customary to any country that experiences fast economic growth thus becoming attractive to a wider variety of people from different parts of the world. It is therefore fundamental to work to understand what draws evolving public attitudes and how to drive narratives that foster policy making to the benefit of all.

When it comes to my experience, it seems (based on the show and on my exchange with peers) that I am living an unusual, maybe even exceptional situation. I feel fully integrated in Malta and into Maltese society. I live in a relatively rural area where very few foreigners live and where my wife and I feel extremely well-received by the locals. I go to the most local and iconic gym on the island: the unmissable Bertu’s Gym where mostly old-school weightlifter and body-building enthusiasts go. I took Maltese lessons, although I am still significantly far away from actually speaking this beautiful yet very difficult language, I play 5 a side once a week with a group of Maltese-only friends from the gym, who are all super cool, friendly and welcoming.

When I explain my experience here in Malta, many, if not most expats watch me in disbelief, but I’m sure that with time there is going to be more and more interest among locals who need to understand, accept and conceive the many changes that the island is going through economically, infrastructurally and culturally.

Semantically, there was a specific point that raised André’s (the co-host) attention. The “overpopulation” matter. I worked a lot on this point as I strongly believe that words still matter, in a world where meaning seems something more and more malleable. If you say that a country is “overpopulated”, you must have the intellectual honesty to be able to draw a red line on where exactly something becomes “over” or “under.” Often Malta is described as overpopulated but I find this semantically, ideologically and politically wrong unless it is backed up by an exact estimate of how many people can be received in the country or in a region or a city.

Let me give you an example, overpopulated is a common term to describe reception centrse for migrants and refugees such as that of Lampedusa or Lesvos. In this case, a  reception centre has a specific capacity. When that capacity is reached and more people are received, than we can say that the centre is over-populated. However, the point I raised in the show is that overpopulation is always about infrastructure more than people. If a country, island or city is infrastructurally unequipped to receive new tenants, than yes it will get overpopulated as a specific capacity to reception is identified by, for example, the amount of houses, rooms, kitchens, toilets available in that very moment. Henceforth, I explained how Malta currently has a significant infrastructural issue which manifest itself in the form of very heavy traffic, very high cost of housing (considering local salaries) and great need for specific working profiles (such as healthcare professionals) which are not present on site and that take years to train.

While I explained this principle in the case of Malta, I made it clear that this applies to any place facing the same circumstances (high GDP growth, scarcity of housing, scarcity of specialized workers, sudden influx of people, unequipped infrastructure) and it is not in any way a Maltese unicum. Certainly, being Malta a very small country, the situation is highly exacerbated in terms of perceptions since population distribution occurs across a small territory.

Apart from what I shared above, it was a real pleasure to talk to Mark and the other invitees about their Maltese story and I hope the show was of interest to the audience.

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