From Emigration to Immigration: The Movement of People is Reshaping Malta

  • Filipinos living in Malta gather at a Mass and Praise session sponsored by El Shaddai, the Filipino Catholic Charismatic organization.

As it has developed over the last millennium, Malta has been both an island set apart with a distinctive, if evolving, culture and a maritime crossroad shaped by the movement of peoples. 

Accounts of Maltese history are quite conscious of the wide-ranging cultures that merged to form Maltese culture. Rule by the Knights of Malta and then the British, plus ecclesial influence from Italian states, made elite elements of Maltese life cosmopolitan. But in the villages, it was often very parochial. One prominent scholar of Maltese Catholic life asserts that whatever bridges Malta had to other cultures, fear of the outsider has long been baked into Maltese culture—the legacy of Turkish invasions in the 16th century that resulted in the construction of the grand urban fortifications that draw tourists today. Another man who had worked for years in North African trade and who admired traits that he thought his culture shared with Mediterranean cultures to the south, reported “They were always the enemy… The collective memory of the Maltese population knows the Turks and the North Africans as raiders.”1   

On the other hand, Malta is a country that today depends on welcoming tourists and on its membership in the European Union. In the last decade, the migration of foreigners on work visas to meet the needs of the Maltese economy has further transformed the islands, especially around Valletta and northern Malta. The Maltese 2021 Census report summarizes, “More than one in five residents were foreign, with 115,449 non-Maltese persons residing in Malta on Census Day—an increase of more than five times in the share of foreigners since 2011.”2   In 2011, Malta was 95.1% Maltese, only 4.9% non-Maltese. In 2021, that had shifted to 77.8% Maltese, and 22.2% non-Maltese, a rapidly fast transformation.3  

Migrating away for work

The flow of migrants had, in living memory, run in the opposite direction, when Maltese jobs were too few. Under British rule, Malta was mostly a military outpost, and its economy was composed of workers who supported the British bases or otherwise engaged in subsistence farming or fishing. In the several decades after World War II, nearly a third of the population emigrated in search of job opportunities not available on the islands, particularly to Australia, but also to the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. Malta even sent many clergy abroad as missionaries, its local needs quite well taken care of already. Only gradually after independence, when the islands built a new economy, did migration slow down. Eventually, the economy became so successful that immigrants were needed to fill many jobs. 

The legacy of the outward-migrating generation is still felt in families.  Plaques for donations at shrines, including for a recent project at the National Shrine of the Blessed Virgin of Ta' Pinu, list the names and countries of residence of many families abroad who have donated to make new projects available.

A Very Different, New Context 

In recent decades, two new migration factors have changed Maltese life. First, migrants from Africa and southwest Asia have fled war or come in search of economic opportunity, and Malta has been an initial landing point—often a shipwreck and rescue point—into the European Union.  In 2019, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees reported, “most asylum-seekers enter[ed] the country following rescue at sea. Malta received 4,090 asylum applications in 2019, making it the EU country with the second-highest number of asylum applications per capita in 2019, following Cyprus. In 2020, the main countries of origin of sea arrivals were Sudan, Bangladesh and Eritrea. The nationalities of people granted international protection were Libyan, Syrian and Somali.”4 The number of refugee arrivals has declined significantly since 2019, but refugees still come.5 Processing these refugees has put some strain on the country but may not have the same social impact as worker visa-driven forms of migration because of sheer numbers.

In the last decade, increased Maltese prosperity has meant that workers have been brought in to fill a range of restaurant and healthcare jobs, among other sectors. Already, one man said, “They have become indispensable… I mean, our health sector employs more foreigners than Maltese.” Another interviewee said, “I’m of the opinion that in ten years, certainly twenty, Maltese will be in the minority on the islands.” Ironically, migration has also helped push housing costs up significantly, a change that was identified as a major social problem by almost everyone.  

Reception and Treatment

How migrants have been received is difficult to determine definitively through this research.  South Asians and Filipinos interviewed informally suggested that their welcome and situation were good enough to serve their purposes, especially if they saw their residency status as temporary. On the other hand, the welcome has been problematic enough to lead the archbishop in 2023 to apologize to members of the Indian community on behalf of the Church. 

Several interviewees suggested that there was a gulf between attitudes toward refugees, who were most vulnerable and less welcomed, and workers recruited legally, who were transforming the country more significantly but who filled an economic need. Of the former group, several interviewees did indicate that they participate in or support charitable services for refugees. At the major procession in Valletta, for Our Lady of Sorrows on the Friday leading into Holy Week, one of the priests’ commentaries along the way asked devotees to think of Mary as a refugee in Egypt, comparing her to refugees today, “who are forgotten until the next drowned one is in the newspapers.”  

Of the entire social transformation entailed by immigration, one man said, “We’ve come to accept migrants. What can you do?” Still, a recent survey seemed to support the claim that there was a difference in attitudes toward the two types of migrants. In a 2022 Eurobarometer survey, 92% of Maltese, compared to 75% of all European Community citizens surveyed, favored “reinforcement of EU external borders with more European border guards and coast guards.”6 On the other hand, 88% favored the “free movement of EU citizens who can live, work, study and do business anywhere in the EU.”7

Whether Maltese welcome immigrants is one question, but whether, like many countries, they are ready to imagine themselves as a multicultural society, or a multicultural Church, is another.  A 2021 government survey indicated that on a scale of 1 (“not comfortable at all”) to 5 (“Very comfortable”), when asked “How much do you agree with multiculturalism,” the average response was 2.34, slightly more uncomfortable than comfortable. More than 28% were not comfortable at all, and only 2.5% were very comfortable.8  

Religious and Cultural Implications

One area of concern expressed by interviewees is that migration results in a diminution of the role of the Maltese language. Most Maltese also speak English to varying degrees of fluency, but immigrants tend to rely on English alone. No immigrants whom I encountered had learned more than a few phrases of Maltese, and Maltese conceded that theirs is a difficult and not otherwise useful language to learn. Because of immigrant children, some claimed, Maltese schools are teaching more in English than Maltese. For this and other reasons, older Maltese thought that English was displacing their native language in public interactions to a degree that British rule never had. 

One noted a change on Good Friday: though most shops were in fact closed, the quiet of Good Friday was “not what it used to be.” This was framed (perhaps as a scapegoat for other secularizing tendencies) as an outcome of immigration. “Years ago… almost everyone was Maltese and had been raised to understand what the day was about, about the importance of quiet that day as a way to respect it.” 

In the village of Naxxar, a base for this research, the parish shared the village’s results from the 2021 census. Of 16,912 residents, 2,661, almost 16%, were not Maltese citizens. Fewer than 74% of villagers identified as Catholics, with just over 4% identifying with no religion, and the rest a range of other faiths, including Orthodoxy, Islam, Hinduism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Judaism. A village that was once smaller, almost entirely Catholic, and inextricably linked to its parish is now increasingly multireligious. A parish which historically was a representative of, and was effectively owned by, the whole village, will increasingly have a different relationship with the village. In a short time, though it is not affecting all parishes equally, the Maltese Church is moving from a situation of religious near-monopoly to much greater religious diversity.  

The Maltese Church seems to be recognizing the transformation but changing relatively slowly.  The Naxxar parish has added two Masses in English and occasionally a Mass specifically for Indians. In Valetta, a church has opened its doors to a Filipino El Shaddai Mass of Praise and Worship. A Filipino worker indicated that there is a monthly Mass in his village for the Filipino community.

M.U.S.E.U.M., the Society for Christian Doctrine, indicated that since its work continues to be in Maltese, it doesn’t have non-Maltese members, though it does have some immigrant students in its courses. Band club leaders said that they are now talking about ways to attract more immigrants to the clubs, which means advertising in English and conducting music classes in English.