A total of 1,400 asylum seekers are being held illegally at the Marsa and Safi centres, some of them detained for five months, according to the outgoing UNHCR Malta representative.

The recent reintroduction of detention of asylum seekers has been described as the biggest setback in Kahin Ismail’s three-year term in Malta.

This is not within the bounds of the law. It is very specific in Maltese law, European law, as well, and international refugee law, that detention should only be utilised as a last resort for a short period of time and it should always be justified.”

Speaking to Times of Malta, Mr Ismail said that over a year into his post, he began to see the de facto reintroduction of open-ended detention at the Safi migrant centre.

By 2015, Malta had made big strides in the migration sector, but the situation had regressed as the government reintroduced the automatic detention it had itself phased out.

“We have raised that issue with the government and have asked it to urgently address that issue,” Mr Ismail said.

The UNHCR had observed that the conditions in these detention centres, especially at Safi, are very poor and unaccompanied minors were being unlawfully detained along with adults.

In the summer months, asylum seekers held a number of freedom demonstrations at Safi to protest against their indefinite incarceration and the conditions in which they were being kept.

Times of Malta was also informed by some who had been detained there that they had experienced both verbal and physical abuse from the security guards.

Asked for a reaction to the claims, Mr Ismail said he had also received reports from detainees of physical violence by the guards and had raised the issue with the authorities.

He added that while the UNHCR was not present at the centre all the time, given the conditions, “I would be surprised if there wasn’t violence”.

This was especially true at the Safi centre since staff were not trained to provide support for asylum seekers, unlike the Marsa centre, which was managed by the Agency for Welfare of Asylum Seekers.

I would be surprised if there wasn’t violence

Mr Ismail is aware that the unprecedented number of boat arrivals in 2019, roughly 3,400, put a strain on the system, and that asylum seekers were being detained at Safi and Marsa centres because there was no space in the open centres.

However, the year Mr Ismail had arrived, there were no direct boat arrivals, and he had consulted with the government on the creation of a contingency plan in case the number of boat arrivals suddenly increased, given the volatility of the situation in Libya.

“Unfortunately, we did not see much of an improvement in the reception area. There was a bit of a complacency and the system was a bit neglected.”

Mr Ismail describes his mission in Malta as a mixed bag.

While the detention of asylum seekers is definitely a setback, this does not take away from the role that the Armed Forces of Malta played in terms of rescues, especially in 2019.

This is a commendable action and testimony to the government’s commitment to uphold the international law and to rescue people in distress in the central Mediterranean, he said. In addition, Mr Ismail praised the authorities for signing the 1954 convention relating to the status of statelessness this year.

“We congratulate Malta to finally join the international community’s efforts to eradicate statelessness by 2024.”

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