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New Refugees Commissioner mum on detention policy

The newly appointed Commissioner for Refugees, Mario Friggieri (left) being introduced to the press by Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The newly appointed Commissioner for Refugees, Mario Friggieri (left) being introduced to the press by Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

The new Commissioner for Refugees could only smile when asked whether he agreed with the government's detention policy, before Home Affairs Minister interjected saying it was not within the commissioner's remit to answer such a question.

Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg had just introduced the new commissioner, Mario Friggieri, to the press. Mr Friggieri - a professional social worker who has worked closely with refugees in the past few years - will be replacing Charles Buttigieg who has processed refugees' applications since the Refugees Act came into force in 2001.

The Times asked for Mr Friggieri's views on the government's policy of detaining, for a maximum 18 months, migrants who land in Malta. He reacted with a resigned smile and Dr Borg remarked: "Detention is not a policy. It's a law." Dr Borg defended the policy which has been criticised by national and international organisations, including the UN Refugee Agency and Amnesty International.

The minister said the government was being less strict in the interpretation of which migrants could be defined as vulnerable individuals.

Migrants who qualify as vulnerable persons - such as women, children, persons with a disability and others suffering from some kind of trauma or medical condition - are released from detention within a few days after landing in Malta, Dr Borg said, reiterating the government had limited the detention period which had been indefinite. It was not the government's fault if certain migrants who were refused refugee status or humanitarian protection remained in detention for a long time, the minister said, arguing that the government could not be expected to set free all the migrants landing in Malta in the hundreds. Governments of migrants' countries of origin often took long to send their citizens' travel documents to Malta so the government would have to keep them in detention until they were repatriated, Dr Borg said, when asked if people had to be shut inside for so many months.

Presenting the new commissioner, Dr Borg said Mr Friggieri has a very strong background working in the social sphere, especially among young people. "The Refugee Commissioner has a very complex task as he needs to be attentive enough to determine whether or not migrants' claims are true, but should not be easily impressed by people who put up an act," Dr Borg said.

A former Jesuit known to people for his missionary work in Albania, Mr Friggieri has been working at the Family and Social Solidarity Ministry for some time.

Known to colleagues as a hard working, kind and disciplined person, Mr Friggieri worked directly with migrants and was the person who set up and ran the Hal Far open centre - the first of its kind in Malta.

The minister thanked the outgoing commissioner who examined 4,858 applications of people coming from 64 different countries and granted refugee status to 192 people.

Mr Buttigieg, who Dr Borg said had carried out sterling work with impartiality and independence, gave humanitarian protection to 2,200 people. Of all the applications filed by migrants, 2,150 were refused and 143 were withdrawn by the applicants themselves. The office of the commission has some 600 pending applications at present.

Mr Buttigieg decided to leave office "after six years of hard work" having come close to retirement age. It emerged yesterday that the outgoing commissioner had communicated his wish to be replaced in 2006 when he gave the minister a year's chance to appoint someone else. Though Mr Friggieri officially took charge yesterday, the new commissioner has been working closely with Mr Buttigieg over the past two months for there to be a smooth handover.

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