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Refugee Commission’s baptism of fire

Today, the Office of the Refugee Commissioner celebrates its 10th anniversary. The office, situated at St Elmo, started with a staff complement of just five people, including myself as commissioner. It was one of the most important days in Malta’s refugee protection experience.

Up to September 1987, I didn’t know much about refugee rights. At that time, Mgr Philip Calleja, founder of the Emigrants’ Commission and pioneer of refugee protection in Malta, invited me to give a helping hand in interviewing asylum seekers for UNHCR. The next day, I was at Dar l-Emigrant. Personalised UNHCR intensive training, in Rome, followed. The Emigrants’ Commission was appointed UNHCR’s operational partner in Malta. Soon, I became in charge of interviewing asylum seekers, compiling their reports and dispatching them to UNHCR’s branch office in Rome for final determination according to UNHCR’s mandate.

The local framework of international protection, at that time, was very different from what it is today. Malta did not have a national eligibility procedure.

In practice, the Maltese state used to respect UNHCR’s advice for the protection of refugees and other persons of concern to UNHCR, wherever these people came from. However, in the absence of a refugee law to guide all those concerned in their dealings with asylum seekers according to Malta’s international commitments and/or de facto humanitarian policies, the way forward used to be complicated. Even so, step by step, an unwritten procedure began to be forged and put into practice.

Meanwhile, UNHCR and the Emigrants’ Commission were striving to hammer home the message that the time was ripe for legislation on asylum taking into account every aspect of the refugee issue.

In due time, Malta’s application for membership of the European Union made it essential to have such a law. Local authorities started to focus on it all the more. On December 29, 2009 the Maltese government published Bill No. 46 entitled An Act To Make Provisions Relating To And Establishing Procedures With Regard To Refugees And Asylum Seekers. The Bill passed through Parliament in 2000.

The Refugees Act, as it became known, required that there should be a refugee commissioner. Circumstances put me in the limelight. I was asked to set up the Office of the Refugee Commissioner and be Malta’s first refugee commissioner.

Following months of preparations, mainly with seasoned civil servants who were more than ready to help with their expertise and know-how, the Office of the Refugee Commissioner came into being.

On December 13, 2001, Malta lifted what is known as the geographical limitation to the Refugee Convention. This meant that Malta now had the responsibility to process all asylum applications itself. The task had to be performed by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner on its own steam.

The fundamental objective of the office was to ensure a totally independent, fair, efficient, credible and swift eligibility determination process while, at the same time, guaranteeing the best quality possible regarding the hearing, analysis and determination of applications. A baptism of fire was awaiting us: In 2002 the number of boat people reaching Malta exploded to 1,686 and the phenomenon continued.

How did the office fare in those very challenging years?

In October 2003 the Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights, Alvaro Gil-Robles visited Malta. This is what he had to say about the performance of the Office of the Refugee Commissioner:

“During my visit, I observed that the Refugee Commissioner, the first instance body in asylum proceedings, gave all the necessary attention to asylum seekers. To Malta’s credit, the proportion of asylum status and humanitarian protection granted is significantly superior to most of the European countries. The procedure itself, therefore, is not in question. Nevertheless, it would appear crucial to accelerate it in order to reduce to a minimum the duration of asylum seekers’ detention.

“While the necessary reforms concern the acceleration of the treatment of individual cases, the length of such proceedings would not be excessive were it not for the detention of asylum seekers.

“It appears that a number of civil servants have received training aiming at giving occasional support to the Office of the Refugee Commissioner which is currently composed of the commissioner, a lawyer and three administrative assistants. However laudable these steps might be, and helpful on an ad hoc basis, they are manifestly insufficient. The Maltese authorities ought, therefore, to provide the competent organs on asylum matters – i.e. Refugees Commissioner and Refugee Appeals Board – with an adequate and permanent staff to speed up the decision-making process without prejudice to the quality of the hearing and analysis of applications.”

We did continue to strive to increase, primarily, our refugee status determination staff.

In a March 2006 follow-up report on Malta, the Commissioner for Human Rights acknowledged that since his original report, the Office of the Refugee Commissioner “has been greatly enlarged to bring it up to appropriate size”.

The follow-up report also acknowledged five more important points: at the end of 2005 the office had a deputy commissioner and seven staff working on first-instance processing of asylum requests; the fruits of the work of five of the administrative staff was still developing; in 2005 over half the asylum seekers were granted protection by the Maltese authorities; the number of decisions handled had increased from 557 in 2003 to 1,238 in 2005; and as a corollary of the larger number of decisions, the length of proceedings fell significantly and was (then) less than a year.

From 2002 to 2006, a total of 7,178 boat people reached Malta. The majority applied for refugee protection. From 2002 to 2007, the office processed around 5,500 applications involving over 6,000 persons.

In November 2006, UNHCR attested as follows: “As a matter of routine, the Office of the Refugee Commissioner examines each case on its own merits and with great meticulousness, in order to ensure that persons who deserve some form of international protection get it”.

It was of my own free will that, at the end of June 2007, I retired from the responsibility of refugee commissioner. The foundations of the office were in place.

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