The detention of migrants for more than 10 weeks on the basis of health laws was unlawful and the migrants should be released, a court has ruled.

The judgement was delivered following an application filed by six asylum seekers, detained at the Safi Barracks beyond the legal limit of ten weeks.

The migrants, assisted by lawyers from Aditus Foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service, filed separate applications claiming that their continued detention was not merely a ‘restriction of movement’ in terms of laws on the prevention of disease, but was a deprivation of their personal freedom.

The migrants explained how, immediately following their rescue at sea, they had been questioned by police officers and held in a detention centre.

They were then handed a document restricting their movement since there existed “reasonable grounds” to believe that they were carrying a contagious disease and therefore required medical screening.

They were later subjected to a screening of their chest at a health centre. However, to date, they remained in the dark about the results of those tests.

Meanwhile, they had applied for asylum status, thus rendering their stay in Malta “regular and lawful.”

However, their detention at  Safi Barracks under permanent supervision persisted.

Moreover, when accompanied on visits to a health centre or the Office of the Refugee Commissioner, they were handcuffed and transported in the Detention Service van.

The migrants pointed out that such a situation amounted to an unlawful deprivation of their personal liberty, far beyond the restriction of movement for public health reasons in terms of law.

Furthermore, it appeared that this process was only applicable in respect of migrants rescued at sea. Migrants reaching Malta through other channels, tourists or even Maltese nationals returning home after visiting risk countries were not subjected to similar restrictions.

Although the law authorised the extension of the initial 4-week detention period to ten weeks “for the purpose of finalizing such microbiological tests as may be necessary,” the migrants said they were never subjected to further testing and they were not given medication.

At no stage were they informed as to what led to the Superintendent of Public Health to conclude that there was “reasonable suspicion” that they “may spread disease” and neither were they quarantined.

Such a scenario lent itself to the suggestion that their continued detention did not stem from public health concerns but rather “a migration management policy that is concerned with other considerations – considerations that, whilst potentially valid from a public policy perspective, do not constitute valid legal ground,” for such limitation of liberty.

After hearing submissions by the applicants’ lawyers as well as representatives of the Attorney General and health authorities, the court declared such ongoing deprivation of personal liberty unlawful and ordered the migrants’ immediate release.