Prison-like conditions at Safi Detention centre and uncertainty as to when migrants held there would be released, ignited the 'freedom' riots on Monday night.

Armed officers, and the Special Intervention Unit were called to the detention centre following reports that migrants detained there were angrily protesting their captivity.

Cries of ‘freedom’ could be heard rising into the morning as migrants banged on the gates in the quiet village.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was also requested to assist defuse the situation on Monday. 

“The situation returned to some normality at around 3am on Tuesday but remains very tense and unpredictable,” said spokesperson Fabrizio Ellul.

What happened in the days before?

A teenage migrant, detained in the centre until Monday morning claimed the authorities had twice ignored a letter that he and a group of others had written requesting information on their release.

Video: Chris Sant Fournier

“We were told we would stay there maximum of 70 days, but 70 days pass and no one spoke to us.  We wrote two letters asking when we can have freedom and no response. The security guards verbally abuse us when we ask questions. I was beaten and put in a solitary room for arguing for a change of clothes,” said 17-year-old Mohammed Abdalraham.

Life behind the locked barrack gates

Overcrowding, hot and cramped conditions, and hostility from the guards made living there a nightmare, explained Mr Abdalraham. People had to queue to drink water from the bathroom sink and their basic necessities such as toothpaste or medicine were often disregarded, he said. 

Mr Ellul explained that the riots were the unfortunate result of the detention of asylum-seekers and others who were rescued at sea and disembarked in Malta. 

“The current increase of sea arrivals may have strained the system, particularly the reception space in open centres, but we call for arbitrary detentions to be avoided.”

What will happen to the people there?

Some of these migrants were awaiting transfer to other European countries, and Mr Ellul pointed out that if pledging countries came together to step up their measure to transfer of these individuals, this would free up space and alleviate the situation in terms of bottlenecks in the system. 

He also stressed that arbitrary detention can be challenged and minors should never be detained for the purpose of immigration management. 

As for the legality of the situation, Mr Ellul stated that "detention can only be justified under certain conditions as provided in Maltese and EU law. It should be assessed individually, specific timeframes need to be established and there must exist the possibility to challenge detention before a competent body."

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