Updated 5.45pm with AWAS' comments

Residents at Ħal Far open centre who share sanitary facilities and sleeping quarters are growing increasingly concerned about their wellbeing.

“It feels as if measures have been put in place to protect those beyond these walls and not those inside of them. The risk is higher now than it was before because if one of us has coronavirus without knowing - and this is plausible considering that eight residents tested positive - he is in very close proximity to hundreds of others,” one migrant said.

The open centre was put on lockdown on Sunday evening after eight residents tested positive to COVID-19. 

Some 1,000 asylum seekers living at the centre will be kept in quarantine for at least 14 days, and soldiers and police have surrounded the centre. 

Tight security at the centre housing migrants and asylum seekers. Video: Jonathan Borg

The overnight lockdown raised questions about whether the residents were eligible for quarantine leave or unemployment benefits if they lost their job.

Neil Falzon, director of aditus, told Times of Malta that the government has recognised the negative effect of quarantine and the outbreak itself, and has provided financial aid to employees. 

“We cannot exclude migrants who are now in mandatory quarantine and risk losing their jobs. They are also part of the social and economic community,” he said. 

'Release detained migrants' 

Governments can detain asylum seekers who are going to be repatriated or relocated until they leave the country, but since Malta has closed its borders it is now technically illegal to detain them.

Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović has called on Council of Europe member states to review their detention and release migrants.

Faced with the COVID-19 pandemic, it is unclear when returns will resume and under human rights law, migrants can only be detained if repatriation or relocation is feasible.

According to Mijatović, Belgium, Spain, the Netherlands and the UK have already released asylum seekers.

Falzon noted that locking down hundreds of people in such a small place with below standard hygiene facilities was a public health risk. 

Although this limited contact with people, they were still coming in contact with staff, risking an outbreak there. 

Falzon said the government could issue a tender for the supply of hotel and hostel rooms that are currently vacant to host asylum seekers and others who are becoming homeless. This would help hotel owners cover running and staff costs.

“People are ending up homeless every single day – they are losing their jobs, getting evicted – those who were at risk of poverty are now poor. 

“This is an emergency and it is not unheard of for the government to turn on the private sector. Greece had hosted migrants at hotels when it was facing an influx of refugees.”

Food distributed per cabin, additional sanitary facilities installed

A spokesperson for the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers told Times of Malta that to avoid gatherings and limit physical contact, food has started being distributed per cabin.

More sanitary facilities have been installed on site and sanitary products have been distributed among residents. The Civil Protection Department are disinfecting different parts of the centre on a daily basis. 
Medical professionals are also on site while the health authorities are increasing the number of swab tests among residents.

Isolation facilities have been set up in case of emergency, including a clinic run by the Malta Red Cross inside the centre, the spokesperson said.

"Over the past few weeks, residents have constantly being updated on the situation and they are well-aware of what symptoms to look out for," the spokesperson said.

"In fact, the first two positive cases were identified after the patients called the health authorities themselves."

Regular talks are being given to the residents under quarantine and a helpline is being set up to provide more support remotely.

A number of residents representing different communities are keeping close communication with the management of the centre. These measures follow another initiatives by AWAS, in collaboration with UNHCR, to distribute multi-language leaflets to raise awareness against the spread of the virus. 

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