The European Asylum Support Office headquartered in Valletta has received several reports from migrants detained at the Lyster and Safi barracks of physical torture, beatings, solitary confinement, denial or delay of medical care and, in some cases, electrocution.

The EASO says it has “discussed” these reports with the Maltese authorities but the ministry responsible denies ever receiving reports of physical ill-treatment of detainees.

After a tip-off from an anonymous source, I asked EASO whether they could confirm that several detainees had reported to them having been beaten, having their teeth damaged by beatings to their face and being taken to a room to be beaten up and left alone for several hours.

Annis Cassar, a spokesperson for EASO, told me: “EASO is aware of some allegations which you have mentioned. This includes claims made by applicants directly to our personnel.”

EASO does not have any direct authority to intervene in the running of Malta’s detention centres. But “naturally, our personnel are very present on the ground, including at the Safi detention centre. Furthermore, our personnel are in continuous contact with asylum applicants in the course of carrying out their duties supporting the Maltese authorities.”

I asked Cassar what they did with the allegations once they became aware of them. “EASO takes these allegations extremely seriously,” Cassar told me, “and all such information is brought to the immediate attention of the responsible Maltese authorities. They have also been raised with the national authorities in discussions on several occasions and at several levels.”

But the ministry for home affairs, national security and law enforcement denied ever hearing of such reports. Asked to comment, Rebecca Buttigieg, a spokesperson for Minister Byron Camilleri, told me “no form of physical abuse is tolerated inside the detention centres, including scuffles between the detainees themselves. Detention Services officials are requested to report on each and every incident arising inside the centres. There have not been reports of torture and such instances would be referred to the police immediately.”

An EASO official speaking to me on condition of anonymity described reports of systematic abuse and violence in the detention centres. Almost half of all interviews made with detainees, the official told me, include reports of physical abuse and violence “intended to inflict fear and impose obedience in the detainees”.

I asked the ministry if it was true that a disproportionate number of the detainees have needed urgent dental care due to harm to the head and face during beatings. EASO officials became suspicious when they noticed the unexpected frequency of oral surgeries in otherwise healthy young people.

The ministry’s spokesperson replied that “oral health is a common phenomenon inside closed facilities and detainees are seen to by doctors employed at the Detention Services or referred to the primary health centres.

Moreover, there have not been reports of health issues related to the teeth or mouth caused by physical interventions by the officials. In certain instances, migrants are treated for health-related issues and injuries which occur before their arrival in Malta.”

Those detainees are our responsibility. They are people. Their lives are in our hands- Manuel Delia

My source at EASO also told me that the agency noticed a high number of referrals to Mount Carmel Hospital because of frequent attempted suicides, apparently not all due to mental health issues. Some detainees reported attempting suicide as a form of protest to draw attention to the conditions of their detention.

The ministry’s Buttigieg confirmed that “there have been instances where migrants had to be referred to a psychiatrist, however, only few of such cases were confirmed to be mental-health illnesses. In such cases, the migrants are provided the necessary care by Mount Carmel Hospital.”

EASO spokesperson Cassar reminded me that “it is an obligation of all EU member states to fully apply all legal measures of the Common European Asylum System, including those found within the Reception Conditions Directive.”

The Council of Europe’s committee to prevent torture inspects Safi barracks along with other detention facilities on the island on a regular basis. Inspections in 2008, 2011 and 2015 included interviews with detainees in Safi. All past reports confirm that the CPT received no complaints of ill-treatment by the detainees.

However, an unscheduled visit to the Safi and Lyster barracks was made in September 2020 by the CPT in a “rapid reaction visit”. These visits are normally conducted after reports of torture or inhumane detention conditions provoke the committee to act without waiting for the next scheduled trip.

A Council of Europe statement last September reported that “at the end of the visit, the delegation’s preliminary findings were presented to the Maltese authorities, along with some observations for immediate action”.

Asked to comment about this, ministry spokesperson Buttigieg told me that “the Detention Services has acted upon the vast majority of the recommendations by the end of the year”. The ministry also said that “the CPT interviewed a considerable number of migrants who did not report cases of ill-treatment by the Detention Services officials.”

This claim cannot be confirmed until the report by the CPT is published, which can only be done with the permission of the Maltese authorities. The ministry clarifies that “the CPT final evaluation report has not been concluded yet”.

One European agency – set up to support the management of asylum seekers – says it has told the Maltese government it received persistent reports of torture. The Maltese government says it never got such reports.

Another European agency – set up to prevent torture and inhuman treatment of detainees – visited the detention centres on an unannounced visit apparently because of reports that things at the barracks are not what they should be. The Maltese government says everything is fine.

Those detainees are our responsibility. They are people. Their lives are in our hands.

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