Life in the 'Tent Village':
Africans in Hal Far, Malta
July 2009

by Marios Stavrou

I've been to Malta a few times already. I had always heard about the refugees, especially after they had been rescued from near death out in Maltese waters. Or was it Italian waters? Both countries continue to fight over who should rescue the Africans on overcrowded boats. Italy claims the boats are in Maltese waters. Of course, the ball is constantly thrown from one player to another. I'd always known of the area where the camps are located but had never been there on any of my previous trips. It was not until this time around though that I saw the refugees of the tent village at Hal Far.

© Marios Stavrou
Looking into one of the refugee detention camps at Hal Far on the southern coast of Malta. The tent village is one of the four camps in Hal Far. There are 45 tents and in each one approximately 15 to 20 people are housed.
It was in a different place altogether. It was different from any of the other Maltese landscapes. As I'd find out later, this was the way Europe's response or non-response would shape Malta for years to come. I remember being in the back seat of the car and looking out to the tent village on the left as we were driving along. Time had slowed down for a split second – just enough time to freeze that moment in my mind. It reminded me of scenes I'd seen on television as a child back home in Cyprus. There, all close older relatives or friends had at some point been refugees. My father was one too. And still to this day, 35 years later, he believes that he cannot go back to live in his home in the north.

I had to find out more about these African refugees in Malta. I wanted to know the why, how, when. After returning to that area several times recently, I came to see that while "why, how, when" may matter to me, for the refugees it's the "how long" that matters the most.

© Marios Stavrou
Most of the single men are housed in what they call the "hanger." Like the tents, the hanger can be very hot. Hal Far, Malta.
I'm in Hal Far for the second time this week. Located in the southern part of the Mediterranean island on the outskirts of Bugiba, a seaside resort, this is where refugees from African countries, or "illegal immigrants" as they are generally referred to, are first taken on arrival in Malta. Most of them if not all arrived after a six-day boat trip, usually from Libya which is not too far away. On the boat there could be between 30, sometimes 200 people. They're from all around: Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Ethiopia and countries of West Africa like the Ivory Coast, Ghana and Burkina Faso.

The air is quiet. A light breeze and an intense Mediterranean sun beats down for most of the day. A single road divides the area. On the north side of the road is the detention camp and close by, the buildings where couples and their children are housed. Cross the road and on the southern side of the road is the "hangar," as the refugees refer to it. Here, couples with no children are housed in container houses. Other such containers house some of the single men. But most of them are housed in the hangar. I can't imagine what the heat must be like in there at this time of the day.

© Marios Stavrou
One of many rooms crowded with cots in the detention camp at Hal Far, Malta.
As you walk down the road you notice the tents set up behind fences in a desert-like field. Dry grass, shipping containers and stacked up cement pipes for the road complete the décor. A few cars with locals pass by every so often. The bus makes its usual stops on the road going through taking refugees to nearby towns or the capital, Valetta, to look for work. As soon as I arrive one of the Somali refugees recognizes me. He tells me there's a lot of police today because Dutch and Maltese envoys are visiting the tent village. Ahmad, the Somali refugee, tells me one of the refugees in the tent village decided to end his life a few days ago.

The tent village is one of the four camps in Hal Far. There are 45 tents and in each one of these approximately 15 to 20 people are housed. Well, not really in them. They spend their time going in and out of them. They say it's too hot in the tents in the summer and way too cold in the winter. In the winter the water comes running through the torn tops and sides of some of the tents. Some of the refugees sit under trees for whatever shade they can find and wait all morning just outside the camp. If they're lucky, someone local will stop and take them on for a day's work. Maybe two. For most of them this has become a daily routine. Waiting is the daily routine. Waiting for a possible interview to enter France or just to have enough money saved. Most of the time the money is sent back home. Sometimes, when enough waiting has been done, the months go by and they've saved some money. Now, some of them can attempt to reach the European mainland. Their situation might just get brighter and more hopeful. For most though, the waiting is here again when they wake up the next morning.

© Marios Stavrou
An African man in a Che Guevara shirt. The men and families are either described by the Maltese as "refugees" or "illegal immigrants" depending on one's point of view.
Each person has a different story of how they got here. Each experience of getting here is different and personal. But all have a similar story and experience about conditions in these camps. An official visit here with a police escort means I won't be seeing the inside of the camp or the tents. The police officer at the gate makes me understand very clearly that cameras are not wanted as I take a few steps past the gate into the camp. This doesn't stop any of the refugees from coming out and talking. Unlike the detention camp where refugees are first taken, spending anywhere between four months to a year within, the refugees I'm talking to can come in and out freely. They refer to the moment they all leave detention camp as "freedom."

A small crowd has formed around me. Some of the men tell me that three times a week refugees in these camps have to show up at the camp office where they can sign to receive money for food, transport or any other daily life expenses. Most hope to save a little. They receive a mere 130 euros. No, not a day, not a week but 130 euros a month.

Although they can now move freely and venture to nearby towns for work, their conditions continue to be extremely hard to live in and can push some to the limit. Further down the road, I meet two Eritreans. They ask me if I have been to the detention camp. No. Not without some sort of permission. They take me around the back of the camp. We pass walls along the way. The graffiti messages have been painted over. The messages are clear and simple, repeated several times along the high camp walls crowned by barbed wire: "BLACKS OUT!" Job, one of the Eritreans, throws a packet of chewing tobacco over the walls for a fellow Eritrean still spending time in detention camp. It will be another few months before he gets his "freedom."

© Marios Stavrou
An African refugee stands among the cots in one tent. There are 45 tents in the camp, with each one housing approximately 15 to 20 people. Most spend their days outside avoiding the intense heat inside the tents. Hal Far, Malta.
Adding to the difficult living conditions are the policies employed by Europe. Such policies and regulations are what seemed to have pushed the Somali refugee to suicide. The refugees here stated the difficulty they face when attempting to reach their priority destinations like the Scandinavian countries, France or the UK. Entrance is almost always denied into the heart of the European fortress. The Somali refugee who ended his life was flown back from Holland after what was his third attempt at that new life.

Europe is becoming an even stronger fortress to penetrate. Malta and Lampedusa are the fortress towers—on the edge. The European exclusionary policies and agreements are the chosen weapons of this empire and they are powerful against an unarmed exodus. It seems Europe is taking its time in acknowledging its responsibility and obligation towards suffering African nations and their people. It will come as no surprise if things take awhile to evolve because some of Europe's biggest countries are still unwilling or incapable of solving their own current homeless problems within.

© Marios Stavrou

Marios Stavrou studied art and sustainable design for five years before turning to photojournalism at age 24. He chooses to work in social documentary photography because of his interest in people and their individual stories. Like art and design, he feels that photography is another way to look at the world and its people. And just like art and design, photography for him is another way of understanding this world and making sense of what is going on. Marios Stavrou is both French and Cypriot and is based in both countries a few months at a time. Over the coming months he will be traveling through Eastern Europe to Istanbul and back to France.

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