Watchdog demands end to ‘inhumane’ migrants policy
Human Rights Watch called yesterday for an end to Malta’s blanket policy of detaining undocumented migrants, which it described as “inhumane and unnecessary”.
The use of open centres as an effective and cheaper alternative to detention should be explored, according to the international human rights watchdog.
“Detention has no clear public benefit. It doesn’t deter migrants from coming to Malta and the arbitrary limits of 12-18 months in detention do not make sense,” said Alice Farmer, researcher in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW).
She was speaking yesterday at the unveiling of HRW’s 50-page report, Boat Ride to Detention: Adult and Child Migrants in Malta.
The report documents how Malta detained “virtually all” of the approximately 15,000 migrants who landed by boat in Malta since 2002, regardless of age.
Asylum seekers who arrive by boat are held in closed detention centres for up to 12 months while their claims are processed, and those who do not apply for asylum or are rejected are held for up to 18 months.
This is inhumane and unnecessary, according to HRW, as even those who have not been granted protection are released anyway after 18 months if there is no possibility of repatriating them.
“This policy appears more designed to punish migrants rather than effectuate their removal,” the report states.
Meanwhile, those who are likely to be granted protection, such as Somalis, often have their applications processed quicker by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner, according to HRW deputy director for Europe and central Asia Benjamin Ward. “If it is highly likely they will be granted protection, why detain them all?” Mr Ward asked.
Detention has come under scrutiny recently after the death of Malian migrant Mamadou Kamara in the custody of soldiers following his escape from Safi detention centre.
Mr Ward said the money spent on detaining people could be better spent on integrating migrants likely to remain into society.
HRW highlighted in particular the plight of unaccompanied minors detained with adults while they undergo a “lengthy” age determination process.
“There must be a switch in presumption so that those claiming they are children are treated as such until their age is proven,” said Ms Farmer.
On average, child migrants spent 3.4 months in detention, according to HRW, which also pointed out that there were children as young as 12 kept in detention with adults.
Children are released into group homes for children once it is proven they are aged under 18.
HRW rejected the idea that if all migrants who claimed they were minors were automatically treated as children, then adult migrants would be encouraged to make bogus claims about their ages.
“You could design a criminal justice system that would ensure no one guilty was ever acquitted, but the consequence would be that many innocent people would be punished. That is the case currently with children in detention,” said Mr Ward.
HRW also rejected claims from the Maltese authorities that detention deters migrants from coming to Malta.
The report states that most migrants HRW interviewed did not know about Malta’s detention policy prior to arrival, but they would still have come even if they had known.
Others said they did not know Malta existed as a country.
The report acknowledged greater solidarity was needed from EU countries in terms of relocating refugees, as the current system based on the Dublin II Regulation places an unfair burden on countries at the southern periphery of Europe.
Research was conducted between February and March this year. Eighty-seven migrants and asylum seekers were interviewed, as well as NGOs, human rights lawyers and government officials and representatives of entities working with migrants.
• Abdi M, who was 17 when he was detained in Malta, told Human Rights Watch: “Every day a big man from Mali came and said, ‘Give me your food’. And one day I said no, and he hit me. I was out on the floor (unconscious) for half an hour. I told the soldiers but they said, ‘We don’t care.’ No one helped me, I just cried and went to sleep.”
• Ghedi H, a Somali, said he was 17 when he arrived in Malta. “I was surprised... I was going to detention, some people told me. I thought when we go to Europe we will get freedom.”
• Labaab X, a Somali boy who came to Malta aged 15, said: “I didn’t know Malta existed as a country. I thought it was part of Italy. I didn’t have a choice of where to go. I didn’t know about detention. But if I had known, I still had to come. My country, and Libya, I couldn’t stay there.”