Thirty-two migrants who were detained on board four tourist boats last year are suing the state for alleged breach of fundamental rights.
The migrants, part of a larger group of over 400 who originated from eight African countries, had fled from Libya in small boats when civil war broke out.
They reached the Malta search and rescue zone and were picked up by vessels that were likely receiving instructions from the Maltese coordination centre, a court was told on Thursday.
Off Malta, they were transferred to four private vessels run by Captain Morgan and Supreme Cruises in an operation coordinated by the Maltese authorities.
The court was told the migrants ended up in a situation of complete detachment from the outside world, hardly knowing their location and having no idea what lay ahead.
During the weeks that followed, they were never officially informed of the reason for their detention at sea, nor of the government’s plans in their regard.
Although the boats’ captains did record their personal details, that information appeared to have been intended for relocation purposes rather than in line with some asylum or migration policy.
Kept in the dark
The migrants said they were not informed of their right to seek asylum, nor were they ever placed under a detention order issued by the relative authorities.
The captains asked them to name their preferred EU state for relocation purposes, telling them that those were the Maltese government’s plans.
With very limited WiFi connection, the group said they had little contact with the outside world, not even managing to contact their families to let them know they were alive.
Their application said they were from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Mali, Ghana, Liberia, Gambia and that they were young.
Nor did they have access to legal assistance since neither lawyers nor officials from the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS) were allowed on board.
Living conditions on board were cramped, lacking in hygiene and medical assistance, with the situation deteriorating during the last three days on account of bad weather conditions.
The tourist vessels, not being equipped for the open seas, were tossed about in the choppy waters, as the migrants on board sought to bail out water, soaked to the skin.
In the chaos, some of the migrants were seasick and faint, while all feared for their lives.
The weeks-long ordeal came to an end after the European Commission intervened and the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe said that the migrants’ condition on board the tourist boats was “unsustainable and needed immediate action.”
When ultimately the migrants were transferred to detention centres at Safi, Ħal Far and Marsa, their state of unlawful detention continued, the court was told in the application.
Some were subsequently released as a result of proceedings filed by their lawyers before the Magistrates’ courts.
In their constitutional application, the migrants said that they had been deprived of their personal freedom during their ordeal which also amounted to inhuman and degrading treatment.
Their right to asylum had also been breached and their dignity violated by the detention which they claim to have been in bad faith.
They called upon the court to order adequate compensation for the breach.
The application was filed against the Prime Minister, the Home Affairs Minister and the State Advocate.
Lawyers Neil Falzon, Katrine Camilleri, Cedric Mifsud, Carla Camilleri and Mireille Boffa signed the application.