Human rights NGOs have not been allowed inside the Safi detention centre for the past weeks, amid growing concerns about conditions inside Malta’s main closed immigration facility.

Representatives from Aditus and JRS said they have been denied access to the centres since August. Aditus director Neil Falzon said authorities had given them no formal explanation for the move.

Access to detained migrants started to be reduced pre-COVID-19, Falzon said, and was suspended when the pandemic first reached Malta in March.

In July, representatives of the NGOs were allowed in for a limited three hours a week to provide legal services but access stopped last month. The absence of NGOs means rescued people are not getting basic information about asylum or any legal support to prepare them for an interview that will determine their future, they say.

“No government agency is able to provide these basic services alone. People are coming out of detention without knowing what asylum is and how the system works,” JRS director Katrine Camilleri said.

Falzon and Camilleri were contacted after Times of Malta published footage of a group of men who have spent months at the Safi detention centre and are begging to be allowed to return home, as they remain in cramped conditions and with no update on their asylum claims.

The footage came as no surprise to the NGOs.

“We have sadly gone back to a system of automatic and indefinite detention. We now have hundreds of people detained in violation of Maltese and EU law, anxious migrants who have no idea what is going to happen to them and traumatised children locked up with adults,” Falzon said.

Malta had stopped automatic detention of rescued people in 2015, but its recent re-introduction has resulted in the overcrowding of centres, leading to a deterioration of living conditions, increased stress levels and protests.

“What was already a difficult situation pre-COVID-19 became more challenging when the pandemic reached Malta. Now add another layer of isolation by stopping NGOs’ access to centres,” Camilleri said.

“The men’s frustration and tangible pain is not surprising: they are being detained for an indefinite time without access to the outside world or basic services, no control over their lives, probably traumatised from their journey and with limited access to a doctor or social workers. Surely there are more humane ways to accommodate asylum seekers while safeguarding our national interest,” she added.

“Imagine the impact that this treatment at our doorstep will have on their integration into our community.”

Why is detention illegal?

According to EU law, an asylum seeker cannot be detained for more than nine months and detention should only be utilised as a last resort and should always be justified.

Since mid-2018, people rescued at sea have been informed their freedom of movement was being restricted on orders of the Superintendent of Public Health as they could be carriers of a contagious disease.

“Hundreds of people are being detained on the basis of health laws and this is illegal as only a magistrate can order detention,” Falzon added.

This was confirmed by the courts: last year, six judgments declared that the ongoing detention regime is illegal.

Six asylum seekers, assisted by Aditus and JRS, filed proceedings on the grounds they had been detained beyond the legal limit of 10 weeks on the basis of health laws.

So what is the alternative?

Governments are legally obliged to explore alternatives to detention that would ensure migrants turn up for their asylum-seeking interview.

Systems that have previously been adopted in Malta include signing at police stations and implementing a bail bond. In other countries, asylum seekers have a guarantor assigned to them by an NGO.

“Asylum seekers have a vested interest in turning up for the interview. The absolute majority want to see the procedure through, as it determines their future. We cannot implement detention because of a very small minority who might try to abscond,” Falzon said.

“In such cases it is up to the government to invest in protecting the country’s borders. A judge once said that a government cannot burden a person with the country’s inability to control its borders.”

For the past year, human rights NGOs have been asking for a high-level meeting with the government, including the prime minister, to discuss migration policy.

“Our approach is one of dialogue. We are asking for openness and ongoing dialogue about how we work together for the good of all – Malta and the people arriving at our shores seeking protection. We have also called on the EU to find a solution. The current system is not working,” Camilleri said.

Psychologists appeal for humane conditions

Detention centres must provide detainees with humane conditions, the Malta Chamber of Psychologists insisted on Thursday.

People fleeing for their lives and seeking asylum had a legal right to enter a country through irregular channels, the chamber said.

Many of those residing in detention centres had passed through traumatic experiences that made them deserving of the highest level of care.

Some had also endured inhumane treatment because of their religion, gender, political beliefs, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Being subjected to further undignified conditions in detention might be beyond what they could cope with, the chamber said.

The experiences of desperation and helplessness that often accompanied detention had a major negative impact on mental health.

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