The government will continue to detain illegal immigrants on arrival in the interest of public safety, despite recent harsh criticism of the policy.

"Given Malta's small size you cannot expect the government to release illegal immigrants into the streets, especially in light of increasing numbers. This would send the wrong message and spell disaster for the country... As a minister I am responsible, first and foremost, for the protection of Maltese citizens," Home Affairs Minister Carmelo Mifsud Bonnici said yesterday.

On Thursday, the international humanitarian aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) launched a scathing attack on Malta's detention policy during a session of the European Parliament's Civil Liberties Committee.

It followed Gozo Bishop Mario Grech's recent criticism of the government's detention policy in the light of Catholic morals and his call for an "honest, sincere and level-headed assessment" of long-term detention, which he said was leading to mental breakdown.

The agency, which recently withdrew its services from Malta's detention centres due to "appalling" medical conditions and overcrowding, presented its report to the EP describing the centres as a "threat to human well-being".

The humanitarian organisation decided to quit detention centres because it felt its work was made ineffective due to the absence of pharmacies and proper facilities to isolate people with infectious diseases.

Dr Mifsud Bonnici said he was receiving mixed messages from the agency since, on the one hand, it had withdrawn some of its services while on the other he recently received a letter from MSF saying it wished to increase its services in Malta.

He did not contest that the conditions in detention centres were "not optimal". However, the government was working to improve the situation.

"The government cannot work miracles. We are trying to make improvements but the increasing flow of immigrants slows things down," he said.

It was easy to criticise Malta, especially since its small size made everything more visible, he said, adding he expected international organisations such as MSF to help Malta cope with the problem.

The ministry also issued a statement saying it was disappointed that MSF was persisting in criticising Malta in the most unfair manner by publishing a dramatised report, which was nothing more than a "thinly-veiled attack" on Malta's detention policy, a matter outside MSF's remit.