Ending Malta’s mandatory detention policy for asylum seekers would be a big mistake and not in the migrants’ best interests, Home Affairs Minister Carm Mifsud Bonnici stressed yesterday.

What I’d like to know is how exactly to achieve an effective integration policy... nobody seems to have an answer

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said the government’s detention policy allowed it to process asylum applications within a maximum of six months while ensuring applicants’ basic needs were being met.

His defence of Malta’s detention policy comes in the wake of an international report saying that the system in place violated international human rights obligations.

Published by the International Commission of Jurists, an NGO network of human rights lawyers, the report argued that existing detention conditions violated standards imposed by the European Convention of Human Rights. Malta has been a signatory of the convention since 1987.

The ICJ criticised the government for treating migrant arrivals as a temporary “emergency” situation rather than a long-term reality.

“We’ve never been in emergency mode. It’s a difficult issue but we’ve administered it fairly well and built a decent infrastructure,” Dr Mifsud Bonnici said, adding he was basing his remarks on the news report that appeared on The Times yesterday and would issue an official reaction in due course.

He said that while detention was “not a perfect policy” it allowed the government to keep control and assess asylum seekers. “In other countries, the free movement of asylum seekers encouraged the rise of extreme political factions, something that hasn’t happened here. Not a single migrant exits detention without a clearly defined status,” he noted.

Human rights lawyer Neil Falzon criticised the government’s insistence on detention as the only possible way of dealing with asylum applicants.

“The government has never concretely explored any other options and it must come to terms with the fact that the European Court of Human Rights has already ruled that the policy is illegal.” A July 2010 ECHR judgement found Malta’s detention policy violated the right to liberty and gave detainees no way of contesting the lawfulness or duration of their detention.

Malta has the EU’s highest asylum acceptance rate, with six out of every 10 asylum seekers being granted protection. The island’s geographical location means it receives the world’s highest number of asylum seekers on a per capita basis.

The ICJ report also found that EU member states were not doing enough to help Malta cope with migrant arrivals.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he hoped EU-wide solidarity on the issue would continue to evolve, although progress had been made over the past years.

He said he was anxious to convince Antonio Guterres, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and a former Portuguese Prime Minister, of the need to bolster the agency’s presence in Malta and Libya. Mr Guterres is set to visit Malta next month.

But Dr Mifsud Bonnici was dismissive of calls, repeated in the ICJ report, for Malta to introduce policies designed to help migrants integrate into Maltese society.

“What I’d like to know is how exactly to achieve an effective integration policy. I’ve been to countless conferences on the issue and nobody seems to have an answer.”

Dr Falzon, who also heads advocacy NGO Aditus, invited the minister to kick-start a national debate on what integration meant in Malta with relevant stakeholders.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici felt integration policies were unlikely to help. That reasoning held little water with the director of the Jesuit Refugee Service, Katrine Camilleri.

“It’s true many migrants don’t see Malta as their final destination but some will end up staying here. We have got to start addressing this issue.”

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us