The number of migrant detainees treated for self-harm or suicide attempts rose significantly last year.

Ninety-three received such treatment in the mental health facility, Mount Carmel Hospital, in 2020, amounting to four per cent of all those who arrived by sea.

This was well above the two per cent of sea arrivals, or 60, seen in 2019, while in 2018 it was only one per cent at 17, according to figures provided by the Health Ministry.

A Council of Europe report recently laid bare the inhumane conditions in the centres, where migrants were unlawfully held and “forgotten for months”, and COVID-19 patients were left to mingle with other detainees.

The rise in admissions should not come as news given the mishandling of the pandemic in detention centres, aggravating the already terrible conditions, human rights NGO aditus said when contacted.

Aditus director Neil Falzon said that in light of those gruesome conditions, he was not surprised that the pressures caused by the pandemic had spurred a rise in mental health problems among detainees.

“While we were all sanitising, keeping socially distant and following daily news updates, detained people were rubbing shoulders with persons testing positive and had no way of protecting themselves,” he said.

The lack of communication with the outside world made the dire situation worse, he continued.

The COE report highlighted the fact that mobile phones were confiscated in detention centres and many detainees had limited access to phones, if any.

It is shameful that not only did we fail to protect them, but that we inflicted so much pain and misery on men, women and children

That means a number “spent many months (some reportedly six months) without being able to contact their families to inform them of their detention and their whereabouts”.

In addition, migrants had restricted access to NGOS and lawyers, the COE report added.

“With no contact with the outside world they were left totally clueless as to the pandemic’s situation: how was the situation back home? What was happening in Malta?” Falzon said.

He pointed out that the situation in itself would be terrible for anyone, but for people who had reached Malta after harrowing experiences at home, in Libya and out at sea, “Malta’s detention centre must have been the final straw”.

“It is shameful that not only did we fail to protect them, but that we inflicted so much pain and misery on men, women and children,” he said.

However, a spokesperson for the Home Affairs Ministry played down the figures.

Rebecca Buttigieg said the absolute majority of detainees admitted to the mental hospital in 2020 were not “truly suffering from mental health illnesses”.

“In this respect, the number of migrants who are admitted to Mount Carmel for further examination is considered low,” she said.

The figures, she added, could not be analysed solely in relation to the number of sea arrivals as there were other important factors at play, mainly the occupancy rates inside the centres.

“We cannot assume that all persons held in closed centres arrived in Malta irregularly by sea,” she said.

‘I heard suicide mentioned almost every day’

“Hardly a day went by when suicide wasn’t mentioned,” a former employee at Safi detention centre has told Times of Malta.

Angela (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) was on site for two attempted suicides last year. She claimed migrants with mental health issues were deprived of adequate care.

The harsh conditions in the camp, the lack of information on why they were being held and whether they would ever get out drove them to desperation, she said, adding the lack of information was partly due to the suspension of NGO access.

“Almost every day I would hear mention of suicide. Either it was someone saying they were contemplating suicide or talking about a friend who was,” she said.

Angela said she herself was now attending therapy to deal with the traumatic experience.

In neither case of attempted suicide that she knew of were emergency services called, she claimed.

She described one chaotic scene when a man cut his wrists during his asylum interview after expressing agitation about detention conditions. 

“The employees present did nothing to calm the situation, they exposed the other detainees to danger, and even grabbed another detainee, putting him in front of the man who was waving around the razor blade in a panic,” she said.

“The woman interviewing him urged management to call emergency services but they didn’t, and the doctor never arrived on the scene at least until after we left later that day,” she recalled.

In another suicide attempt, a Bangladeshi detainee emerged from the bathroom bleeding and vomiting during a break in the interview.

“He had hidden a razor blade in his mouth to evade the metal detector test and there was the fear among us that he could have swallowed a blade.

“The one person to react right away and take care of him was the cleaner. Once again, management refused to call an ambulance and the wounded detainee continued to be looked after by a camp nurse,” Angela said.

Questioned on these claims, a spokesperson for the Home Affairs Ministry said the Detention Service refers detainees who require urgent medical assistance to the Accident and Emergency Department without delay.

The spokesperson added that closed centres are continuously monitored by medical professionals who also serve as first responders whenever such incidents occur.

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