Malta’s detention policy should be tested in court because the objective of detaining migrants is unclear, according to a senior official from a pan-European network of refugee-assisting groups.

“I am puzzled by Malta’s detention policy because the number of migrants who are returned to their country of origin is very low and so raises the question as to what is the objective of detention,” Kris Pollett, senior policy officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), said yesterday.

The organisation is a pan-European network of 69 refugee-assisting NGOs that promotes a humane and generous European asylum policy.

Addressing a seminar organised by the Jesuit Refugee Service and human rights NGO Aditus to commemorate World Refugee Day yesterday, Mr Pollett said it made no sense to detain asylum seekers because they had nowhere to go from Malta.

“What border can they be expected to cross? If most are given protection anyway, why detain them for long periods? It is just not legal to do so,” he said.

Migrants who land in Malta are automatically detained for a period not exceeding 18 months. They can be released before if their case is processed by the Refugee Commissioner and are granted some form of protection.

Government has always insisted that a minimum mandatory detention period is required to give the authorities enough time to process asylum applications.

Journalists were only allowed to be present for the first part of the seminar after which a number of Maltese organisations working with migrants held workshops behind closed doors.

In a brief address Aditus chairman Neil Falzon said the meeting was important because it gave NGOs the opportunity to voice their understanding of what international protection meant, which differed from the interpretation it was given by states.

Madeline Garlick, a senior EU affairs officer with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Brussels, gave an overview of the European Commission’s latest proposals to upgrade legislation dealing with reception standards for asylum seekers across member states.

She said solidarity featured prominently in EU legislation but the important thing was to translate this into practical measures.

The Commission proposals among others define specific and narrow grounds for detention, which means people cannot be detained simply because they are asylum seekers.

“In the past there have been member states that rejected this line of thought but the UNHCR sees this as important because it is in line with spirit of the Geneva Convention on refugees,” Ms Garlick said.

Another ambitious proposal is to limit the duration of detention and have this confirmed by a judge within 72 hours of detention.

“The proposals are generally positive but they will be unpopular with some member states,” she said.

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