Asylum seekers arriving in Malta will no longer be detained automatically, according to a new migration strategy published yesterday.

The strategy also mentions setting up an initial reception facility to accommodate newly arrived migrants for the first seven days. It lays down six grounds for detention and lists four alternatives.

Published by the Home Affairs Ministry following extensive consultation with NGOs, the strategy emerges from Malta’s obligation to update its practices in line with the relevant EU directives.

One such directive requires the inclusion in national legislation of reasons why an asylum seeker could be detained, the introduction of alternatives to detention, a regular review of detention decisions and free legal aid when reassessing detention decisions.

So far, all people who enter the country irregularly are detained. An asylum seeker must be released after 12 months of detention. An irregular migrant who is not an asylum seeker could be detained for up to 18 months.

The detention requirement was waived with respect to vulnerable people, including families with children, pregnant women and unaccompanied minors.

Drawing on EU funds, a new initial reception facility will be set up to accommodate newly arrived migrants in a contained environment. They will be medically screened there and interviewed by the pertinent authorities, including the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS) and the police.

The stay at the centre will be limited to no more than seven days, although this can be extended due to health-related reasons. Reception standards in the facility will be equivalent to those provided in detention centres. However, the strategy notes, efforts will be made to provide minors with physical reception conditions and activities appropriate to their age.

Directly observed treatment (required for people on tuberculosis treatment and for HIV) will be carried out in the facility by a team of nurses. A case worker will be assigned to each migrant, who will be followed through the initial reception phase and, where applicable, through detention.

An asylum applicant can only be detained for any of six reasons and only for the period such reasons is deemed applicable. The police can then make a recommendation to the Principal Immigration Officer not to detain the migrant and indicate whether and which alternative should be applied.

Newly arrived migrants will be medically screened and interviewed by authorities including AWAS

A migrant could be required to abide by one or more of the following conditions for a period not exceeding nine months, namely: report at an assigned location within specified timeframes, reside at an assigned place, deposit or surrender documents or place a one-time guarantee or surety.

Asylum seekers and beneficiaries of international protection who are not detained or those released from detention shall, if no alternative accommodation arrangements are available to them, be offered accommodation at open centres.

Neil Falzon, representing the coalition made up of 14 NGOs, welcomed the strategy as a positive step in the right direction.

“We are not happy with all the details – such as ways through which asylum seekers can challenge their detention order – but, on the whole, the package is a step in the right direction,” he said.

Grounds for detention

• To determine or verify the asylum seeker’s identity. A lack of documentation will not lead to automatic detention if alternative evidence for the person’s nationality exists, such as credible and consistent testimony by other applicants who reached Malta along with the migrant in question.

• When there is a risk of absconding on the part of the asylum seeker.

• To determine that the migrant has the right to enter Maltese territory. Only to be applied if a migrant entered the island via a regular border crossing but whose entry was irregular (such as in the case of stowaways).

• When a migrant only submits an application for international protection after being served with a return decision to delay or frustrate enforcement.

• Whenever there is reasonable suspicion that the asylum applicant has committed a criminal offence, particularly of a serious nature.

• If an asylum seeker is to be returned to another EU State responsible for determining his asylum application, provided that that there is a risk of absconding.

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