Child migrants and refugees kept at Malta’s open centres need more support and protection, a high-powered report has concluded.

A total of 868 children, 768 of them unaccompanied or separated from parents, arrived in Malta last year after being rescued at sea, according to the report by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Unicef and the International Organisation for Migration.

The report says that due to the increase in the number of unaccompanied children arriving by sea, some of those assessed as being between 16 and 18 years old started being accommodated in an open centre for adults, which hosts over 1,000 persons.

A ‘buffer zone’ to separate the children from adults was created at this open centre in late 2019 but the separation was possible only to a limited extent. Children still shared common facilities with adults and there were insufficient physical barriers to isolate the children’s area.

“Open centres require enhanced reception facilities for unaccompanied children – both in terms of support provided and space to ensure that children are separated from adults and protected as needed,” the report says. 

It also notes that all the children are subject to limitations to their freedom of movement upon arrival at the Initial Reception Centre and the Safi detention centre, for an initial period of several weeks to months.

A total of 768 children were unaccompanied or separated

Health checks take place before the children can be transferred to open centres. Delays in transfer to open centres occur mostly as a result of lack of reception space in the centres devoted to unaccompanied children.

In December 2019, only around 50 children were residing in an open centre dedicated specifically to unaccompanied children where their freedom of movement was not subject to constraints, the report says.

Some 186, or 24 per cent, of all unaccompanied children who arrived in Malta by sea in 2019 were still at the Safi detention facility by December.

Another 82, or 11 per cent, were accommodated in the Initial Reception Centre, a reception facility where health checks, age and vulnerability assessments normally take place. 

Most of the children who arrived by sea last year originated from Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. 

A similar report for 2018 did not include Malta in its data. The home affairs ministry put the figure for unaccompanied migrants under the age of 18 at 104 for that year.

In all, 33,200 children arrived in Greece, Spain, Italy, Malta, Bulgaria and Cyprus between January and December 2019. Thirty-eight per cent of them were girls.

The report also shows that after the official closure of the EU emergency relocation scheme in 2018, IOM continued to support national authorities to relocate migrants and refugees to other EU member states through bilateral agreements.

Between January and December 2019, a total of 23 unaccompanied children were relocated from Malta to Germany (12), Finland (5), Ireland (4) and Slovenia (2).

Dozens of migrants rescued

Dozens of migrants drifting in the Mediterranean on a blue wooden boat were rescued yesterday by activists on a ship chartered by a French charity, an AFP reporter on board said.

The Ocean Viking – chartered by French aid group SOS-Mediterranee – rescued 51 people in total, including one woman and five children, mainly of Pakistani and Eritrean nationality.

They were found huddled together on a boat whose two engines had stopped working, 30 kilometres from Lampedusa.

The rescue operation took place at the crossroads between the Italian and Maltese search and rescue zones, SOS-Mediterranee said, adding: “We have asked the authorities of both countries for a safe place to disembark.”

The Ocean Viking set sail again on Monday after three months of inactivity due to the coronavirus crisis.

On board, the crew took the migrants’ temperature and gave them a mask, and one person running a temperature was quarantined as a precaution, the AFP reporter said.

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