Migrant open centres in Malta were only at their 26 per cent occupancy by the end of 2021, a historical low for the island, according to a European report warning that life there continues to be challenging.

In December, 696 people were living in centres that can accommodate 2,638 migrants, not including the newly-constructed emergency centre that has a capacity of 500 beds.

The low occupancy rate is a result of the fact that there were only 838 admissions in the centres in 2021, according to a country report by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles.

Throughout the year, the UNHCR, in fact, recorded 832 sea arrivals – a 63 per cent decrease over 2020.

Of these, 63 landed on Malta spontaneously in February and 49 in November. The AFM rescued 596, while a further 10 people were brought here for medical reasons after they were rescued by NGOs.

A total of 97 people were rescued by a private boat and 17 by a merchant vessel.

The main countries of origin were Eritrea (26 per cent), Syria (16 per cent), Sudan (12 per cent) and Egypt (10 per cent).

The report acknowledges that living conditions have “reportedly marginally improved”, refurbishments were carried out and a new space was built in the open centres.

There is also an increase in the number of people who are left homeless, with informal settlements cropping up around open centres

But problems remain

However, in 2021, detainees still had partial to no access to outdoor and common areas, no access to any prayer room or private space, limited access to a phone to call lawyers and no access to leisure activities.

They shared rooms measuring 3m2 by 5m2 housing three to eight people. Additionally, minors were found to still be detained with adults and there was lack of information provided to migrants about their detention.

State-sponsored legal aid was also only available for the first seven days’ review of detention, leaving most asylum seekers with limited means to challenge their detention past this initial review.

“Access to detention in the living quarters is now forbidden to NGOs and lawyers, creating tremendous difficulties in providing legal services to detainees due to the lack of access to phones inside and the necessity to meet their clients in a board room on the margin of the detention centre.”

People being evicted with nowhere to go

Despite available space, asylum seekers deemed as ‘not vulnerable’ continued to be evicted after six months at open centres while families are evicted after one year.

At that point, many are still unable to afford housing.

“Six months is an extremely limited period of time for asylum seekers to acquire language skills, find regular employment and save what is sufficient to make front to regular rent payments,” the report says.

“Access to formal employment remains an issue, with many having to resort to irregular, unstable work positions.

“There is also an increase in the number of people who are left homeless, with informal settlements cropping up around open centres to cater for those who have been evicted and do not have a place to stay.”

The situation was made even worse with a new work policy forbidding access to the labour market to asylum seekers from safe countries of origin for the first nine months since registering for asylum: “these individuals are, therefore, evicted from open centres before being legally able to work and sustain themselves.”

The report warns that accommodation in Malta is very hard to secure due to high prices in a largely unregulated private rental market, while landlords are usually “extremely reluctant to rent accommodation to asylum seekers”.

Moreover, due to the delays in processing asylum applications, people are being evicted while waiting for an answer for their request for international protection and have only a three-month renewable asylum-seeker document.

This makes it difficult for them to find employment and accommodation with a monthly €134 allowance, the report said.

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