A rose by any other name…
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A rose by any other name…

What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet – William Shakespeare.

Last Thursday, August 28, after an unusually quiet summer, some 257 migrants rescued at sea were brought to Malta. The arrivals, mostly Syrians and Palestinians, included a relatively large number of children.

The following evening, families with children were moved from Safi detention centre to a makeshift centre at the Naxxar Trade Fair Grounds.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said the move was implemented “in line with government policy not to detain any children” to ensure they were not placed in a “closed detention centre”.

The families were not transferred directly to an open centre as “under current regulations, migrants that are not cleared medically cannot be placed in an open centre”. However, it was hoped that clearance would be obtained on the Monday. Until then, they would not be allowed to leave the Naxxar centre, which was guarded by the police.

There is need for a viable structure that allows for reception of asylum seekers in conditions of dignity

Conditions in Naxxar were miserable at best. The migrants were accommodated in crowded and windowless dormitories, which were stifling in spite of the fans provided, with access to a small part of the yard. The centre had never before been used to accommodate newly-arrived migrants so a handful of Awas (agency for the welfare of asylum seekers) management staff struggled to equip and manage it practically single-handedly.

However, in spite of their best efforts to meet the migrants’ immediate needs, many things were still lacking 24 hours later. Shoes, clothing, baby food, children’s items and drinking water were all in short supply. After the migrants protested, efforts were made to improve conditions.

Although the term detention is not defined in law, it is generally understood to include any situations where an individual is deprived of his or her liberty. The UNHCR 2012 Detention Guidelines define detention as “the deprivation of liberty or confinement in a closed place which an asylum seeker is not permitted to leave at will, including, though not limited to, prisons or purpose-built detention, closed reception or holding centres or facilities”.

Whether or not a situation amounts to detention does not depend so much on where an individual is accommodated as on the extent of the freedom of movement accorded. Holding migrants in a facility they are not allowed to leave is, effectively, to detain them, even if the place is not specifically designated a “closed detention centre”.

Human rights law is clear: deprivation of liberty is a very serious measure and no one should be deprived of one’s liberty arbitrarily. Decisions to detain should be taken individually and in accordance with criteria laid down in the law.

The government’s commitment to ensure that children arriving in Malta irregularly are not detained is laudable. However, placing families in facilities that are ‘closed detention centres’ in all but name and where conditions are significantly worse than those in existing immigration detention centres is neither in line with our freely-assumed legal obligations nor with the promise to end the detention of children.

The only way to fulfil this commitment is by creating a structured alternative to the current system. Efforts to do this cannot start the minute a boat arrives in Malta; hastily implemented options generally create more problems than they solve and involve a far greater cost, especially for those working on the ground who are expected to build the boat as they sail, often without the necessary resources.

Lasting change requires proper planning and sustained efforts from all stakeholders, be they government, non-government or international organisations.

The events of the past few days underscore the urgent need for systemic reform to create a viable structure that allows for reception of asylum seekers in conditions of dignity. Will we accept the challenge to go beyond cosmetic changes and put in place real alternatives to detention?

Katrine Camilleri is director of Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta)

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