“Many migrants in Malta face inadequate living conditions and have little chance of integrating durably in society” the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, says in a report releasing today. He visited Malta for three days in March.
According to the Commissioner, Malta should establish a human-rights compliant system of reception and integration of migrants.
“European solidarity is key to this endeavour” said the Commissioner; “this means more avenues enabling migrants to move to other countries, but also financial and other assistance to improve the material conditions, asylum determination procedures and integration opportunities in Malta. This is even more urgent today, as Malta has seen new arrivals of migrants from Libya since the end of March”.
The Commissioner said he considers the policy of mandatory administrative detention for arriving migrants, including asylum-seekers, as irreconcilable with human rights standards. The Maltese authorities, he said, should implement alternatives to detention and make effective remedies to challenge detention available to migrants.
The Commissioner said he found the situation in the Hal-Far tent village migrants centre inadequate even for short periods of time and recommended its closure.
Material conditions in the Hangar Open Centre in Hal-Far, which has re-opened since the Commissioner’s visit and following new arrivals from Libya, are also reported to be seriously sub-standard.
“This is a very serious concern”, said the Commissioner, “especially as vulnerable individuals, including very small children are accommodated there”. The Commissioner recalls that vulnerable groups of migrant people, such as families with children, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, elderly persons and persons with disabilities are entitled to special protection.
“They may be detained only as a measure of last resort, not as a rule. Adequate care should always be provided to them. Therefore their accommodation in big open centres including those in Hal-Far and Marsa, must be avoided.”
Commissioner Hammarberg praised the Maltese authorities’ long-standing efforts to rescue irregular migrants at sea and urged the authorities to keep the country’s borders open for people in need of international protection, including those who are forced to flee from North Africa. He underlined the need to ensure effective access to adequate asylum determination procedures and to avoid returning individuals to countries where they would face a real risk of persecution or ill-treatment.
The Commissioner welcomed the progress made in several aspects of the asylum system in recent years in Malta, such as the shortening of the time needed to process asylum applications, improved provision of information to asylum seekers, and the increased rate of recognition of refugee status. However, further progress was necessary in law and practice concerning asylum proceedings.
“The Maltese authorities should provide access to legal aid, and improve access to case files for asylum seekers and their representatives in first instance proceedings before the Refugee Commissioner. Furthermore, second instance proceedings must be made an effective tool for review”.
On migrants’ integration into society, the Commissioner said he was concerned by the fact that the system currently in place to support migrants, including beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, perpetuated their social exclusion and left them at serious risk of destitution. He stresses that financial support for migrants should not be dependent on residence in the open centres and that all beneficiaries of international protection should benefit from financial support and social assistance.
Finally, Commissioner Hammarberg said he was seriously concerned at manifestations of racism and xenophobia in Malta. “These phenomena exacerbate the difficulties that migrants face across many areas of life, including employment, housing, access to services and places of entertainment. Stronger efforts are needed to counter this trend and to foster the durable integration of migrants in Malta. The media should also be more engaged in fostering mutual understanding and combating stereotypes in public debate.”
CLOSING DETENTION CENTRES 'NOT FEASIBLE'
The Ministry of Home Affairs in a reaction issued last week when the report was sent to the ministry, said the recommendation for Malta to consider alternatives to detention was not feasible in the local context.
The ministry pointed out that Malta received migratory influxes disproportionate to its size and capacity.
It noted that the report acknowledged progress in the asylum determination process, mainly with reference to the reduction in the average time frame for processing asylum applications, which now stood at five to six months, as well as in relation to the increase in the percentage of asylum seekers recognised as convention refugees.
Notwithstanding this, government considered that detention remained a necessity, particularly in view of Malta's geo-social realities and the fact that the identity of irregular migrants cannot be ascertained upon arrival.
The recommendation in the report to consider alternatives to detention is simply not feasible in the local context, especially as Malta receives migratory influxes disproportionate to its size and capacity.
At the same time efforts were consistently being made to provide the best possible reception conditions, further to providing detainees with all relevant rights, including the right to challenge their detention decision in line with the law.
Several initiatives were also being carried out at open centres, both with regard to reception conditions as well as initiatives to facilitate integration.
The ministry said that it had to be recognised that the consistently large number of migrants residing at the centres imposed limitations vis-à-vis refurbishment initiatives, whereas Malta's ability to absorb migrants over the long-term remained limited, especially in view of its small labour market.
It was in view of these considerations that Malta called for the assistance of other states through the resettlement of beneficiaries of international protection, a call that Mr Hammarberg has supported, in recognition of the particular difficulties that Malta is facing, the ministry said.
It said that, on the other hand, the Commissioner's recommendation to close Hal Far tent village was simply not realistic at the time the visit took place, and was even less realistic now that the migratory influx to Malta has resumed pursuant to the Libyan crisis.
Malta's reception capacities remained overstretched and appeared likely to experience more pressures in the near future.
"It is an indisputable fact that policies in the migration sphere have to be formulated with reference to the country's geo-social realities, as well as to the financial and other resources at the disposal of the authorities.
"It is regrettable that Mr Hammarberg has not always accorded due weight to the realities characterising the migration scenario in Malta," Malta said.
Malta's full reply can be downloaded from the Ministry for Justice and Home Affairs' website.
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