An uprising at the Safi detention centre was quelled by riot police using tear gas yesterday morning after tens of frustrated immigrants who fled Libya about six months ago were refused asylum.

Several migrants, mostly West Africans, set fire to mattresses and skips in what they called a “cry for freedom”.

At one point they pelted police officers and soldiers with a shower of stones, some of which had been broken off the walls.

One detention services employee was seen nursing a bloody wound to his hand. “You help them and they throw stones at you,” he was heard telling his colleagues.

Twenty-three migrants identified as the most violent were arrested and are expected to be arraigned soon.

The Justice Ministry said 15 police officers, three soldiers and one migrant were slightly injured. It said “extensive” damage was done to the boundary wall, a new sentry box, a number of beds, skips, partition walls, windows and some vehicles that were hit by rocks.

Migrant: I am going mad here

As riot police and soldiers gathered in groups and stormed the compound wielding large shields and batons, it seemed like matters might escalate. However, some of the migrants who watched the action from their windows poked fun at what they saw as an overzealous response to the protest. “You should be fighting the war in Libya not the war in detention,” one particularly amused migrant quipped as he laughed heartily at the security personnel huddling together.

Things calmed down when the migrants returned to their rooms and arrests were made. A number of residents at the centre shared their grievances with journalists.

“If we did not do this, you would never come and listen to us,” one of the migrants shouted to the media from a barred window when asked why they had set their own belongings alight.

“I am going mad here,” said Aman, 34, who claimed he was originally from Eritrea but had worked as a carpenter in Libya until the violence erupted. “We want freedom. We are human beings, not criminals. Why are we being kept in prison? We have families who need us. We fled a war. We never wanted to come to Malta illegally,” he added.

The migrants complained that they were treated like criminals, being taken to hospital or for immigration interviews in handcuffs. They said that whenever they complained of being sick they were given Panadols or “vagina pills”. Some migrants, they claimed, had even attempted to hang themselves.

Detention Services commander Lieutenant Colonel Brian Gatt said the violence began before 8 a.m. after many of the 271 residents were told their asylum applications had been rejected.

“I went to speak to them but they were not satisfied with what I said. Things escalated and they began to attack us... They even attacked me and I had to change,” Lt Col Gatt said calmly as he described how the migrants threw sewage at him and his colleagues.

He praised the combined effort of the police and the army in quelling the disturbance, which he said was conducted by about 80 to 100 “hardcore” rioters. Speaking about the government’s detention policy, he said those who were rejected for the second time (after their appeal) were generally sent back to their countries of origin.

Asked if the fact that they came from Libya changed anything, Lt Col Gatt said migrants had used Libya for departure since 2002.

The Justice Ministry said that since March 28, 1,535 migrants had reached Malta and only 813 of their asylum applications were still pending. With an average of 180 cases concluded per month, 574 applicants have so far been granted protection and 146 denied.

Those who deserve protection were getting it relatively quickly, but those who did not could not expect exceptions to be made, the ministry said.

While strongly condemning the violence, the Jesuit Refugee Service highlighted the shortcomings of the inadequate and overcrowded detention centre. JRS director Fr Joseph Cassar said Safi was still “inadequate” and “overcrowded”. Detainees often complained about lacking basic necessities like soap and toothpaste.

“Long-term detention is a soul-destroying and psychologically demolishing experience. It also raises serious human rights concerns. The need to search for alternatives cannot be sufficiently stressed.”

He pointed out that the migrants had no choice but to flee the escalating conflict in Libya and they had asked for this to be considered in their asylum process.

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