Migrant detention in Malta constitutes a violation of human rights and renders people ‘less than human’. This is what I had argued in 2013 based on research in the preceding years on access to human rights by unauthorised border crossers in Malta.

I had argued then that the state-centric interpretation of human rights put forward by the Maltese government to support its detention policy defied the very nature of human rights, which seek to protect the person from violence by the state. The recent case of AD vs Malta vindicates this argument.

Human rights principles as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were to be the basis for the way states treated people, citizens and non-citizens alike. Treatment in breach of these minimum standards of fundamental human rights renders people less than human.

States that do not respect these minimum standards breach their own democratic credentials and move closer to authoritarian forms of government. Today, we have a complex human rights system by which states keep each other in check and by which individuals could seek direct redress against violations of fundamental rights. Of these, the European Court of Human Rights is perhaps one of the most important and respected institutions.

Migrant detention in Malta, a blatant violation of human rights, has withstood the test of time. This administrative form of detention is justified through a concoction of a breach of entry conditions, health security and a security mindset. The recent case of AD vs Malta has highlighted this: a 17-year-old Ivorian national was forced in detention for 225 days.

The minor arrived in November 2021 after a harrowing journey across the sea, during which some of his fellow travellers died. Upon arrival he was detained at the Ħal Far Initial Reception Centre without an explanation for his detention. Legally, a health quarantine was used in the first two weeks, followed by a public health order and yet another detention order was then issued when he applied for asylum.

The judgment’s description of the dreadful conditions inside the centres makes for an uncomfortable read – accommodated with adults, little access to natural light or outdoor areas, isolated, with one bucket to wash clothes and the floor shared between a group of men.

NGOs were refused the opportunity to donate warm winter clothes. What is also extremely worrying is the account of decisions taken by different entities. A series of apparently confused half-decisions with no logical sequence but with the evident aim of shifting responsibility.

This suffering must stop- Daniela DeBono

The European Court came down heavily on Malta: the practice of detaining migrants for health reasons under order by the Superintendent of Public Health was deemed illegal. The extreme vulnerability and confinement of a minor, the fact that he was also an asylum seeker and the traumatic consequences of stressful conditions in the detention centres were all mentioned by the court as violating the applicant’s human rights. He was awarded the maximum in damages, €25,000 and lawyers’ fees.

Beyond this individual case, the court slammed the national system as “defective, hindering human rights protection”. One that should be “rapidly” and “effectively” suppressed.

The government’s response was shocking. In a continuum that can be traced back two decades, successive governments have engaged in a veritable race to the bottom. Today, as transpires from this same court judgment, there is little regard for basic human rights. For even if – as the anonymous government spokesperson declared – the applicant’s health was well taken care of, what use is that in prison, when it is clear that some of his ailments were induced by the detention?

Since 2021, NGOs have no access inside detention, leaving a void of independent human rights monitors. The media is only given “controlled” visits, “not allowed to speak to migrants, record, film or photograph anything”.

The government is claiming the privilege of violent and merciless treatment. The harsh judgment of the European Court is rubbished, for the sake of keeping up appearances with the electorate. Without the tireless service of the Ivorian’s lawyers, Aditus Foundation and JRS Malta, all this would have remained invisible.

Daniela DeBonoDaniela DeBono

Our common humanity dictates that this violent treatment must end.

This suffering must stop.

Daniela DeBono is the Head of the Department of Anthropology, University of Malta.

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