A teenager who experienced Malta’s detention system would rather die than relive the ordeal, according to research that sheds light on the “limbo” experienced by minors seeking refuge here.

Brought ashore at 16, he spent months in detention without any information: “they do not tell you anything – you never know what’s in store for you.

“Maybe I wouldn’t want to go through that time, and I die. I could – I would take a rope, I would die and that’s it... as I would prefer to die than to go through that time.”

The youth is among several who spoke of their time in Malta as a protracted sense of waiting and living in the unknown: they have no control over their time in detention, age assessment and asylum process.

Although their bodies were retrieved from the sea, they felt discarded and dehumanised on land, they told researchers.

The research, called Children in Limbo – Youth Transitions Among Asylum Seekers in Malta, is being launched by JRS Malta and Aditus Foundation on Tuesday.

Authors Maria Pisani and Lorleen Farrugia note that for over 20 years, while unaccompanied minors have been crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of a better life, the government has been criticised for failing to fulfil human rights obligations.

“Ongoing detention of children and young people, the degrading conditions within the centres, the lack of care and absence of clear protection policies and protocols are the source of condemnation and concern,” the authors note.

Only a small minority of unaccompanied minors access formal education and fewer still are provided shelter beyond the age of 18.

“Based on our own observations working in the field, we note that many unaccompanied minors who arrive in Malta by boat are missing.”

'It is not enough to be retrieved from the sea'

For their qualitative research, Pisani and Farrugia interviewed six youths who arrived in Malta between 2004 and 2019 from Guinea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and Tunisia, and have since turned 18.

They conclude, among others, that the government has itself been “a source of terror, violence and abuse” for the interviewees.

“Our research participants were very clear: one is not saved if one is violated. It is not enough to be retrieved from the sea – such a notion is in itself an assault on the dignity of the individual.”

Their encounter with the Maltese immigration system is one that is marked by abuse and neglect: “Upon release from detention, they are cast out. The findings of this research highlight the subjective experience of ‘being free, but not free’”.

What they said...

-[About being assigned a date of birth in January]: “It’s not my original date. They change it, they give me this age. They say ‘if you don’t accept this age, you’re not going to get the paper. So, either you accept this, or you go back to Marsa to the detention centre’. I said, ‘but you cannot change my age’ and they say ‘You come here in this country, forget your age, what is matter is paper’ and I say ‘okay’.”

-“One thing that I missed was I wanted to study. I was telling them ‘I want to study, I want to go to school’. They tell me ‘You cannot, you are not allowed because you are an immigrant. When you are 18, they will stop you, you will not study anymore, it’s time wasted’.”

-[About not being allowed to maintain contact with a social worker at Ħal Far]: “I cannot go in the minor section anymore so once I tried but I couldn’t manage to get through to her… I tried to go to Ħal Far to see her and when I showed the asylum seeker document, they said I couldn’t go in. I said ‘please can I see my mother?’ and they said ‘no you cannot come in’.”

-“People inside [detention] were very angry and like, fighting all the time, and screaming ‘freedom’ and doing protests. One time, it was a very big thing and the police came and they started beating everyone… I will never forget that day. In detention I saw hell on earth. I was crying and people were bleeding.”


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