Various entities in Malta have for some time undertaken efforts to improve the integration potential of refugees, particularly of women, and reduce the level of social isolation and marginalization. Such activities have included advocacy, counseling, legal advice, service provision, training, women's empowerment, detention monitoring, as well as actions to address problems relating to sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI), human trafficking and a range of integration-related issues. UNHCR Malta has conducted public perception surveys to monitor the general feeling towards refugees by the Maltese population and conducted a number of activities in response.
Despite the lack of a universal definition of integration, the integration of refugees is, in many countries, part of everyday debate. Realized socio-economic integration, or perceived integration, shapes the political discourse and impacts asylum and refugee policies and legislation in a number of areas. For refugees, effective integration can often be a Durable Solution and therefore it is important that UNHCR constantly strives to encourage and facilitate integration. Members of the local population as well as refugees are stakeholders in this process and thus the mentorship pilot project was conceived.
The aim of the Befriend project was to explore ways of empowering women, by connecting them to permanent Maltese residents, to improve their access to mainstream services and enhance their understanding of Maltese culture, systems and relationships. UNHCR Malta matched refugee women to a Maltese/local partner and encouraged them to meet regularly and participate in a variety of different social activities. The women were encouraged to discuss potential social activities with each other and the refugee women often asked to be taken to particular places of interest by their mentors.
The Befriend pilot project aimed to address the following issues in the integration of refugee women:
- Cultural/racial/religious stereotypes
- Misinformation regarding refugee experiences
- Lack of participation of refugee women in integration activities
- Lack of access to mainstream services by refugee women
- Low levels of empowerment or self esteem
- Low level ability to communicate with the local population
The pilot program started off by providing a number of training sessions to both groups of women (refugees and mentors), in separate groups. This was especially useful to the mentors as it gave them the tools to understand their partners, their backgrounds and their needs more fully. The mentors expressed their opinion that this learning experience was a vital component of the project. The fact that they heard from a number of guest speakers on a range of topics made the training interesting and diverse.
The project’s focus on networking and socialization was also successful. Through the social meetings, both the refugee women and their mentors learnt more about each other’s cultures, traditions and circumstances. The refugee women in particular benefitted because of the connections they made and the local knowledge they were able to access through their partners.
The results of the Befriend pilot project highlighted the need for a fully-fledged, larger scale, structured mentorship program for refugees in Malta. The integration potential of the project is high and whilst there were some logistical and communication issues, the overall potential of such a program aimed at enhancing the integration of refugees in Malta is considerable.
As a result of the pilot project, UNHCR Malta feels that mentorship is a useful tool in the Maltese context. Both the mentors and the refugee women gained a better insight into the background, culture and situation of their partners. The mentors gained a better understanding of the challenges and needs of refugee women in Malta and the refugee women increased their networking abilities and developed their level of local knowledge. Moreover, the project provided a safe and controlled setting in which to stimulate integration between different cultures.
The befriending project was a pilot project between Kopin and UNHCR Malta