Moving to Malta

Moving to Malta
Our childhood years are meant to help us develop our sense of identity, belonging, culture, and home. But what happens to those for whom childhood is dominated by moving to a new country with a new language, culture, and social norms? Prof. Carmel Cefai speaks to Becky Catrin Jones.
Prof. Carmel Cefai

It’s a small world these days. Developments in technology and transport mean it’s much easier to pack your bags and head off for a fresh start in a foreign land. For many, the destination is Malta. As a beautiful island in the Mediterranean Sea with a booming economy, it is no surprise that it’s drawing the attention of bright sparks and aspiring families from Europe and beyond. In fact, Malta currently boasts the fastest growing EU population. 

Of course, it’s not always through choice that you might find yourself leaving your homeland behind. Humanitarian crises and ongoing wars in North and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East have seen thousands set sail under the most treacherous conditions in search of safety. For this population, Malta is often the first port of call between the dangers of home and the promise of hope in Europe. 

It seems strange to group these populations together, given the stark differences in the journeys that bring them to Malta and the life they seek here. But together, this influx of people has contributed to a sudden rise in interculturalism, where people from different backgrounds interact and influence one another. This is a reality all parties are having to adapt to.

Even in a fairytale scenario, childhood is challenging. Growing up when you’re far from home, look different to everyone around you, and don’t speak their language, makes the challenge reach a whole other level. Children’s wellbeing is an increasingly important and emotive topic to study in Malta, which is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. A team of researchers from the Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health (University of Malta), set out to explore the situation. They questioned: How do you settle into a new home and identity when you are still trying to figure out who you are and where you are from? 

Finding the voices

Children are often a silent group. When analysing the wellbeing or effect of migration on a population, they are usually spoken for by adults. For this study, however, Prof. Carmel Cefai and his team wanted the child’s voice as well. The scope of the study was ambitious; every single contactable, non-Maltese child living in Malta was invited to take part and share their experiences. But this was a challenge.

‘Identifying and obtaining access to foreign children from age zero to 18 was not easy… Some schools suffered from research fatigue and did not wish to participate; whilst translation of instruments and data and use of interpreters drained the limited budget we had for this project.’ Maltese children were contacted and invited to participate too. After all, they are as affected as anyone else when around one in ten of their schoolmates are not Maltese.

The study focused on four main areas; social interaction and inclusion, education, subjective wellbeing and resilience, and physical health and access to services. They covered the experiences of children up to 18 years of age, from various schools, who were either settled into their own family houses or still in open shetlers following a difficult journey to Malta. They also aimed for a balance in migrants’ nationalities; European, North American, African, Middle Eastern, or East Asian; as the experiences of each population are understandably different. Cefai and his team found that the experiences of migrant children in their everyday life are quite positive. In some areas, even more positive than those of Maltese children, with only 8% reporting difficulties in their psychological wellbeing compared to 10% in the native population. Overall, they found that migrant children feel safe, listened to, and cared for by the adults in their communities. Despite the language barriers, most feel like they have a support network, and enough friends though more often than not those friends are other foreign children, not Maltese.They are able to keep up at school, and generally do as well as their Maltese peers, with teachers reporting high levels of engagement.

Adapting to a new world

All is not rosy. Bullying in schools is quite common, though less frequent than that reported by native Maltese children. One in five migrant children also do not feel they have enough friends.

Younger children seem to be more included and engaged than secondary school ones, and in general females fared better in the study than male classmates. That said, age and gender weren’t the main influencers when it came to predicting how well the children engaged at school and in their communities. ‘The study suggests that there are different layers of reality, with the big picture hiding the socio-economic, psychological, and social difficulties encountered by a substantial minority,’ remarks Cefai.

Unsurprisingly, those who speak Maltese feel more engaged than those who don’t, and those who aren’t confident in English are in an even worse position. However, the factor producing the biggest differences between the overall wellbeing, health, and education of the children is their country of origin. ‘The health, wellbeing, and relative comfort enjoyed by many children of European economic migrants contrast sharply with the poverty, poor accommodation, psychological difficulties, learning difficulties, and experiences of discrimination of many children from Africa and the Middle East’, says Cefai. Western Europeans and American children scored highly over all criteria, whereas African and Middle Eastern children are far more likely to be lonely or suffering from social or economic difficulties.

They are more likely to be less proficient in English, which leads to difficulties in making friends with children from other cultures and which also contributes to problems in their education. Although they are generally nourished by their spiritual and religious communities, in all other areas these children report social and emotional difficulties and are also more likely to report facing prejudice and discrimination. Healthcare proved problematic; many parents and children worry that they are subjected to discrimination whilst using services, or do not have enough information to use them in the first place.

A land of opportunity

Despite the additional challenges that these particular migrant children face, the overriding feeling is one of acceptance and hope. Even children in open centres view Malta as a land of opportunity, even when some are in suboptimal housing and lack basic necessities. What children in open centres do not perceive is Malta as their home. Better living conditions in the community, more cultural  sensitivity, and openness to interculturalism may help to reduce the feeling of ‘us’ and ‘them’.

So what do Maltese children think? Again, the overall conclusions show that children are open, tolerant, and welcoming of this dramatic and quick rise in multiculturalism that has happened. However, on closer inspection, it seems that there is still a way to go before we can truly call ourselves an open and accepting society.

Relatively few Maltese children have many foreign friends, preferring to spend time with native peers. This hesitation is stronger in children who aren’t from a mixed community, whereas children in independent schools and more exposed to foreign children seem more at ease with the idea that the future might be even more multinational and intercultural. As many as one in three Maltese children also report feeling unsafe in culturally diverse communities, and worry about potential negative consequences of these changes in the future. There also appears to be particular prejudice against children from Africa and the Middle East in contrast to children from Europe, the US, Canada, and Australia.

What has become clear is that both foreign and native children could do with some reassurance. So what do Cefai and his team suggest we can work on to help everyone embrace this new culturally diverse reality?

A united future

‘[We need] to address the needs of marginalised and vulnerable children, particularly those coming from Africa and the Middle East’, says Cefai. There’s also a lot both populations could learn from each other; caring for their environment, sharing cultures, or even adopting healthier lifestyles. By encouraging more open and judgement-free spaces to play, learn, and share, we’ll take away the ‘us’ and ‘them’ ideology from a young age and replace it with one of acceptance, curiosity, and openness to new ideas. This will help prevent the dangerous spiral of segregation and ghettoisation, seen all over Europe.

Cefai suggests a space for more positive role models for those migrant children thrown into a foreign culture that doesn’t seem to have space for them. Having teachers, healthcare workers, or even political representatives who have similar backgrounds will foster this inclusive nature, showing that everyone has a voice when it comes to working together to make this country a home for all.

There’s work to be done with Maltese children. ‘Whilst it is encouraging that the majority hold positive attitudes towards interculturalism, it is worrying that as they grow older children’s attitudes tend to become less positive,’ says Cefai. ‘It’s our responsibility to ensure that educators, community leaders, and parents of Maltese children are part of a national initiative to embrace interculturalism.’

Although overall a positive study, Cefai and team have shown we still have a way to go until every child in Malta feels safe, happy, and at home. And in this ever-changing and diverse environment, Malta has real potential to be an example to its neighbours on how a successful multicultural society can work on every level. These children are our future. 

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When researchers are at work, they are taking steps that will eventually change our lives. Some steps are very small and will take years to complete, while others are faster and larger. Researchers are part of a global process that will provide solutions to a multitude of challenges. They can resolve our problems to provide energy, safeguard the environment, maintain food supplies, improve healthcare, and sustain efficient transportation. These solutions need innovation and the research that fuels it; this is the only way for societies to survive… let alone thrive! Our future needs hard work and new approaches, ‘doing what we’ve always done’ will not be enough.

The globe’s successful economies all invest huge amounts of money in research; much more than Malta, even if scaled to our economy. Locally, research is particularly relevant since we all know that Malta’s only real resource is the resilience, ingenuity, and diligence of its people.

THINK magazine helps pay tribute to the valuable work of researchers within the University of Malta. Over the centuries, the University has supplied Malta’s intellectual driving force. This institution has produced the graduates who have transformed a small barren archipelago into a civilised developed country within the European mainstream. Apart from a strong academic orientation, the University of Malta is an increasingly important centre for world-class research projects, across a wide range of disciplines. The University also collaborates with other major seats of learning, educational centres and institutes in a number of significant projects. This publication is committed to expose research and its social benefits.

How can you help?

If you share our objectives, please consider what you or your organisation can do to help us to achieve them.Has the University of Malta helped you arrive at where you are today?

You can donate financially through the RIDT website. There you can choose whether your contribution goes to the current priorities of the RIDT, or to a faculty, institute, or centre of your choice.Why not consider leaving a contribution to the RIDT in your will? Talk to us for more details.

Your gift, of whatever size, will play an important part in enabling the University of Malta to increase its research activities and to develop the necessary environment for excellence.

You can donate and get to know more about the RIDT by visiting

For the University of Malta to fulfil its true ‘University of the Future’ role, a much greater emphasis on research and innovation is needed. This will serve as a catalyst for on-going development and progress. For this future to happen, society, and the individuals within it, will need to support the University of Malta’s thrust to prioritise research and innovation. Malta will then achieve a better, more sustainable, and ‘higher value added’ future.

The Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) has been set up with this specific goal: to engage with all sectors of society in a drive to support research activity. During the past year the RIDT has managed to secure an encouraging number of supporters who have made a donation towards its mission. Private companies, public institutions and individuals have come forward with their donations — large or small — because they believe that for a country to thrive and prosper it needs the backing of a strong University that maintains its role as a higher education institution and as a centre for research and innovation.

479608_54799494Thanking our donors

During 2012 the RIDT received an encouraging number of donations from individuals, companies and public institutions. The University recognises the generosity of donors and would like to publicly thank them. Together with these donors mentioned here, the RIDT received a number of donations from individuals and organisations that preferred to remain anonymous.





The Central Bank of Malta

The donation of the Central Bank of Malta will go towards the establishment of The Central Bank of Malta’s Chair in Economics at the University of Malta. The chair will be instituted within the University’s Faculty of Economics, Management and Accountancy. The agreement will run for five years, starting 1st October 2012.




Malta Freeport Terminals Ltd.

Malta Freeport Terminals Ltd will be supporting the Research, Innovation and Development Trust (RIDT) of the University of Malta, over a five year period starting 1st January 2013. The funds will be received through the University’s Research Trust, and will be administered by RIDT’s Board of Trustees.







Evolve Ltd.

Through the RIDT, Evolve Ltd, a subsidiary of Attard & Co that provides laboratory products and services, donated three instruments to the Chemistry Laboratory of the University of Malta. The instruments include a Gas Chromatograph, a Particle Sizer and a FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrophotometer). The new equipment will enable the Department of Chemistry to increase its research activity while providing better facilities for post-graduate students. 


DSC_8174Music and Research

Two university students, Christine Zerafa and Philip Attard, came up with a brilliant idea earlier this year. They put their musical talents to good use and managed to raise funds that were donated to the RIDT. Christine is finishing her Ph.D. in Chemistry and has recently obtained a Master’s degree in performance music, making her an accomplished concert pianist. Philip is doing a Bachelor’s degree in Music Studies and is fast becoming one of Malta’s leading saxophone players.