Address at the Third World Forum on Intercultural Dialogue in Baku, organised in collaboration with UNESCO, the United Nations Alliance of Civilisations, the World Tourism Organisation, the Council of Europe, and the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation

Last February two men from Ivory Coast risked their lives trying to put out a raging fire where a 64-year-old woman and her two-year-old grandson were trapped. The incident happened in Sliema, Malta, and the two men were migrants who had been living in Malta for eight years. They threw buckets of water at the fire as the woman and the child were trapped in the house's basement. The men fought the blaze until the firemen came to the rescue.

In Malta, migrants are often regarded with distrust – even hostility. The general idea is that the migrants are disgruntled and unknown - generally frustrated at ending up in Malta on their way to the continent. Yet this incident showed that the migrants themselves did not allow any feelings of ill will to deter them. They were, in fact, heroes, allowing our shared humanity to overcome any differences.

Historically, Malta was ruled successively by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, the Order of the Knights of St John, the French and the British. With such a history, Malta has inevitably been the host to many and various cultures, religions and models of government. Malta's location at the heart of the Mediterranean, between three continents has ensured it has been a place visited and settled by many and jealously-guarded too. The island's small size – a mere 316 km2 - means that land is, quite simply, limited. In 2004 Malta joined the European Union. All of this influences the level of mobility and migration the island now experiences and the attitudes and policies the islanders have formed in response to it.

Demographically, Malta is rapidly diversifying. As pointed out in the draft Valletta Intercultural Strategy, by 2011 the non-indigenous population of Malta had exceeded 20,000 comprising 140 nationalities, or close to seven per cent of the total population. The bulk are migrants from within or outside the European Union. Others come from the Philippines, Russia, Serbia and other nations while only a minority comprises the asylum-seekers, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia and more recently from Syria and Libya.

Although the migrant population has doubled over the past decade, the country faces a number of challenges in relation to integration. As outlined by human rights NGO aditus, these include the lack of a one-stop shop for newcomers to Malta; the lack of a common language for dialogue; the non-recognition of qualifications for non-EU residents; the general lack of services targeting the specific needs of the migrant populations.

That is why the initiative of Valletta – the island's capital – to become an intercultural city – is particularly striking. Cities are sites of challenge but also laboratories of innovation.

An intercultural city seeks to explore the potential of an intercultural approach to integration in communities with culturally diverse populations. The cities participating in the programme are reviewing their governance, policies, discourse and practices from an intercultural point of view and devising a strategy to enhance their status as an intercultural city.

The intercultural city has people with different nationality, origin, language or religion/belief living and working in it. In an intercultural city, leaders and citizens regard diversity positively, as a resource to be utilised. The city actively combats discrimination and has a strategy and tools to deal with diversity and cultural conflict. It encourages greater mixing and interaction between diverse groups and ensures that all residents are able to live together and benefit from each other's presence.

 What makes this initiative even more interesting is that Valletta has the potential to change the terms of debate on 'foreigners' in Malta towards a valorisation of cultural diversity, managed in an intercultural fashion, and a more outward-looking perspective on the wider Mediterranean region. In some ways, perhaps – Valletta can be seen as a microcosm of Malta.

Would it be a dream to suggest that newcomers' stories – their narratives, experiences – need to be heard by us, their hosts? And that this would form part of a dialogue and interplay where narratives are exchanged, contributing to a fuller vision of reality for all involved? Homogeneity is a myth; there is a wealth of narratives which can be embraced. Diversity is indeed a strength. It provides alternative perspectives, helps innovation and creativity and requires an attitude of openness to other's experiences.

My government certainly thinks so. Malta has always been at a crossroads – geographically, culturally, linguistically. Our aspiration is for Malta to develop this potential as a cultural hub – not just for the Mediterranean but also for Europe.

Malta hosts four international institutions which actively foster intercultural dialogue and awareness in the parliamentary and diplomatic spheres: 1. the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean which brings together parliaments of all countries bordering the Mediterranean 2. the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies, which emphasises the Euro-Mediterranean dimension by strengthening links between Europe, North Africa and the Middle East 3. the Foundation for International Studies, which is a venue for the exchange of ideas and the dissemination of information, acting as a co-ordination and documentation centre and as an initiator of projects 4. the European Union-League of Arab States Liaison Office, the first of its kind, groups EU and Arab League experts who promote dialogue between Europe and Arab countries.

In 2008, Malta joined the Group of Friends of the Alliance of Civilisations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs acts as coordinator/focal point for the Alliance. Malta's national strategy for the promotion of cross-cultural understanding and management of cultural diversity takes a four-dimensional approach: education, culture, the internal rule of law, as well as tourism and town twinning.

Recently, for the first time, government appointed a minister whose portfolio specifically includes social dialogue, civil liberties and equality, and consequently issues relating to integration. This can be seen as the recognition of the growing importance of putting social dialogue and integration on the political agenda in Malta.

Making intercultural dialogue an explicit component of cultural policies is to ensure the development of instruments and measures that promote intercultural dialogue and respect to cultural diversity within societies.

In the arts world, my own specific remit, this is also being recognised, for instance, through the hosting of the IFACCA World Summit which aims to promote intercultural dialogue as one of its main tenets. The summit will be held in Malta in 2016 with the theme The Value of Culture.

Arts Council Malta, too, has recently created a new position with diversity as its area of focus. The Diversity and Communities Associate within Arts Council Malta has the brief to enhance access and participation in culture at all levels of society, whether regionally, nationally and/or internationally. The keywords here are access and participation in culture at all levels of society, while ensuring that initiatives are quality-driven and sensitive towards community identities.

Diversity and intercultural dialogue are basic principles that run through the national funding portfolio for the cultural and creative sectors in Malta.

Two funding programmes in particular take these principles as their raison d'etre. Thanks to these programmes we have seen projects documenting migrants’ journeys and arrival movingly and sensitively (Darrin Zammit Lupi). Others have documented migrants' daily lives in Malta.

One particular project reconstructs and retells African (im)migration and refugee narratives as they meet Maltese audiences in live storytelling, creative writing and visual art. Bodyless is in part an exercise in digging into the connectivity between migrant and host; an affirmation that both have stories and capacities that can be shared. Both are living libraries.

The project and its themes are the result of a year-long dialogue between the team of an NGO called Kopin, Farah Abdullahi Abdi and Maltese artist Glen Calleja. Farah is a Somali refugee, blogger and interpreter. At the age of three his family moved to Kenya where he received his education. In 2012, he left the country, fearing for his safety due to his sexual orientation and religious beliefs.

His journey to Malta was the most challenging experience he has had to face, travelling through Uganda, South Sudan, Sudan, the Sahara Desert and Libya, where he was imprisoned five times for being an undocumented migrant. In his own words: 'It was a matter of life or death: Malta chose me.'

Like the heroes who saved the woman and her grandson, Farah shows a sense of gratitude and willingness to give back to the country that has hosted him. Narratives like these are there to be shared, embraced and celebrated. More and more, such stories fuel the dialogue and interchange that make intercultural dialogue so rich and rewarding. Perhaps, in such a context, our dream - any dream - is but a shadow of the reality we can create for ourselves.


Compiled by Sandra Borg and Simone Inguanez