A 24-year-old migrant underwent complex brain surgery. Left unable to speak and completely dependent for washing and dressing, he was returned to Marsa reception centre.

He was given no support and depended entirely on fellow detainees to wash and dress. He displayed clear signs of depression but received no psychiatric help and no surgical follow-up care.

He was locked on the second floor with COVID positive migrants for 24 hours a day.

This was only one of the appalling barbarities the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment observed on their visit to Malta in September 2020.

The shocking report published on March 10 makes painful reading. It is a damning indictment of the Maltese government, repeatedly accused of inflicting inhuman and degrading treatment and breaching Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“The harsh treatment of migrants found on the visit is contrary to European values and international human rights law,” the report concluded.

The report acknowledged that Malta faces a huge challenge. Between January and August 2020, 2,162 people disembarked in Malta. A total of 562 were children, 500 them unaccompanied.

But the state “cannot derogate from its duty to ensure all detained migrants are treated with dignity and held in humane and safe conditions,” the visiting team insisted.

Disturbingly, Malta detains migrants in conditions bordering on inhuman and degrading treatment as a consequence of institutional neglect. The team judged that Malta may well have failed its obligations to protect life under Article 2 of the European Convention.

A young migrant fell from a fence trying to escape and injured himself. It took three hours and repeated calls for help before a nurse attended to him and an ambulance was called. The man died soon after.

The team found 23 COVID-positive migrants in closed, overcrowded conditions at Marsa centre with other migrants.

The team described the centre as “an establishment in disarray which allowed a dangerous and potentially fatal environment for migrants”.

The duty coordinator did not know where one of the COVID positive migrants was. He thought the migrant had escaped. He was still in Room 17, mingling with COVID negative migrants.

When a group of desperate migrants who had been locked for months without review attempted to escape by climbing a fence, the detention guards vigorously shook the fence until the migrants fell to the ground, one sustaining a scaphoid fracture.

The guards went on to beat the migrants severely with their batons, inflicting head lacerations. A Safi private detention guard took out his personal hunting shotgun and shot at escaping migrants, injuring one in the ankle. Another migrant was pepper-sprayed for daring to look through the corridor window bars.

The guards beat the migrants severely with their batons, inflicting head lacerations- Kevin Cassar

The team categorically stated that there can be no justification for applying baton blows or pepper spray. The Maltese government’s pathetic response was that it considered the reference to pepper spray “exaggerated and unjustified”. It responded in Super One style: “It does not make sense to rely on unsubstantiated claims or assumptions.”

These were not assumptions. The visi­ting team spent days witnessing the appallingly degrading conditions in which migrants were held – most unlawfully. Ninety per cent of migrants are detained on public health grounds based on the 1982 Prevention of Disease Ordinance. The maximum detention period is four weeks, extendable to 10 in exceptional circumstances.

But migrants were detained for months without review, confined to their unit for 23 to 24 hours per day. The Maltese courts found that detention under these provisions is illegal.

Severe overcrowding was standard, with up to 22 people crammed into a 30-square-metre room, completely taken up with bunk beds and with no tables or chairs. Conditions were dilapidated, with dirty and exposed mattresses and vermin. Some rooms were flooded and ceilings dripping.

In Marsa centre, 13 open showers lacked shower heads or shower curtains and were mixed sex. In Safi, shower facilities were filthy, some non-functioning, shower heads missing and sanitary areas flooded. In Block C, there were only six showers – none had hot water.

Some migrants still wore clothes they had arrived in because they had no change of clothes. Some resorted to washing by using water in their lunch boxes. Others borrowed clothes or remained unclothed while they washed their one set of clothes.

Unaccompanied or separated children, including infants, were locked in very poor conditions with unrelated single adult men. Children had no access to education or to an exercise yard to play. Pregnant and breastfeeding women were held in the same space with unrelated men and with no privacy. Pregnant women had not seen a midwife or a doctor throughout their pregnancy.

Some migrants were not even allowed a phone call to their families upon arrival. In Safi, where 360 migrants are detained, there was only one visit by a lawyer in three months.

When a European visiting team has to recommend to our government “to offer a clean bed, mattress and blanket; to provide chairs and tables; to provide hot water and a towel; to provide warm clothing for winter months”, things are bad.

No wonder our government has afforded NGOs “very limited contact with migrants”. No wonder it is failing to satisfy its international obligations to establish an independent national body to conduct inspections of all detention centres.

When it takes a visiting team to force us to remove unaccompanied children from overcrowded detention conditions with unrelated adult men, to provide a young man recovering from brain surgery basic care and pregnant women access to a midwife, we must have lost our humanity.

Our government spent over €550,000 on social media adverts in six months and €15,000 on a single press conference. Is it too much to ask to provide a towel and change of clothing for a few hundred people? Or maybe allow a single phone call to let family know they are alive?

The true measure of any society is how it treats the most vulnerable.

Kevin Cassar is a professor of surgery and former PN candidate.

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