‘This is our second day of freedom’
A Somali woman shuffles into the medical room at Lyster Barracks detention centre, her colourful garments unable to detract from her pained expression. Having arrived in Malta earlier yesterday morning, she is the human face of the polarised public debate on irregular migration she is not yet aware of.
As Times of Malta is escorted around Hermes Block of the closed centre in Ħal Far, the detainees reveal why they made the perilous journey.
Onboard her vessel there were 67 others, including a baby born at sea.
They brought the total of irregular migrants landing in Malta in the past week to 461, with more scheduled to arrive.
Waiting patiently outside the medical room as the Somali woman enters is a weary Eritrean with his foot heavily bandaged.
“A gunshot wound,” a stoic Michael Tekeste clarifies.
He was one of three found with bullet injuries onboard a leaky dinghy containing 291 mostly Eritrean migrants last Thursday.
Mr Tekeste explains he was shot while escaping from an overcrowded Libyan detention centre, where food and water were scarce and medical facilities nonexistent.
He says he was shot at despite paying $500 he borrowed from friend on the outside to a “soldier” at the centre for his freedom.
“In Libya you must pay money to everyone who asks. If you don’t have money they kill you,” Mr Tekeste claims.
An Amnesty International report last month described conditions for refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in Libya as “deplorable”.
At the time of Amnesty International’s visits last April and May, some 5,000 were held in 17 “holding centres” under the Interior Ministry, in addition to an unknown number of detainees held by militias.
Amnesty found evidence of ill-treatment, torture and physical violence towards women by guards at the centres.
Sitting next to Mr Tekeste are five Somali women able to support Amnesty’s claims.
They were among the 102 Somalis brought to Malta in the early hours of Tuesday morning. According to the women, they spent four days at sea on a 30-metre vessel with no food or water.
As Hermes Block houses only single women, couples and families, the single men who made the journey with them and came so close to being sent back to Libya on Tuesday are elsewhere, at the Safi detention centre.
Only one of the women is able to speak passable English. She identifies herself as Ayan and is almost too weak to walk but she offers to translate.
The women say they spent between one and seven months in detention in Libya. They describe the lack of food and water. Among the horrors they list, one stands out: “They take away the women,” says Ayan, referring to sexual assault by militia guards.
Life on the outside is not much better. According to the women, police in Libya summarily rob and beat sub-Saharan migrants. One woman shyly shows a large scar on her leg, the result of an encounter with a policeman wielding a “stick”.
Questions about their access to asylum procedures since they arrived in Malta are lost in translation and met with blank looks.
But when asked what would happen if they were returned to Libya, the migrants look anxious and shake their heads.
Ayan articulates their fears: “If we go back we could die.”
The atmosphere improves when some of the women are reunited with Xiis Nour, an older Somali asylum seeker who made the journey with them. Despite being in detention, Ms Nour says: “This is our second day of freedom.”
For her, Lyster Barracks is a big improvement on Libya, where she claims militias went as far as cutting off the hands of detained migrants.
“Grazzi, grazzi (thank you, thank you),” she calls with a huge smile on her face, as Lt Col Brian Gatt, commander of the Detention Service, leads Times of Malta upstairs.
Here, four young Eritrean women who arrived last week are eating a breakfast of boiled eggs and bread. They too tell stories of grim detention conditions in Libya and police beatings on the outside.
Like the Somalis downstairs, the Eritreans do not understand when asked if asylum procedures had been explained to them in Malta.
Agreeing to share her personal story, Akeberef Kidane says she left Eritrea three years ago and made her way to Libya via Sudan.
After being detained in Libya for two months, she says she escaped when “some of the ladies broke the windows” of the centre. Echoing Mr Tekeste, she claims to have been shot at as she fled but luckily the bullets missed.
“There is no life in Libya. I cannot go back there,” she says.
Article 33 of the Geneva Convention relating to refugees, which Malta has signed, prohibits the refoulement (forced return) of refugees to places or countries where their lives or freedom would be at risk.
Lt Col Gatt confirmed that all migrants who arrived in recent days were now housed in detention centres.
With a capacity for 376 detainees, Hermes Block was just over half full yesterday.
Lyster Barracks also has mobile homes on site to house irregular migrants. The total capacity of the detention centre is 700.
Times of Malta applied to access the detention centre last Saturday to speak to some of the 291 arrivals from last week, before the Government made preparations to send some of the 102 Somali migrants who arrived on Tuesday back to Libya. The men who faced being sent back before the intervention of the European Court of Human Rights are housed at Safi detention centre, so it is unclear if they knew they might have been returned.