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From Libya to Safi, waiting for a lifeline

Migrants often get stuck in a state of suspended reality

The Lifeline arriving in Malta in June. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The Lifeline arriving in Malta in June. Photo: Jonathan Borg

The NGO vessel MV Lifeline docked in Malta at the end of June after the government finally reached a deal with seven other European countries to jointly relocate the 234 rescued migrants aboard.

It had taken six days for that agreement to be reached, and meanwhile the migrants were stranded at sea.

Some have now moved to new lands. Others are looking at the possibly of building a new life in Malta – after sometimes experiencing harsh living conditions.

The Safi detention centre, for example, had felt “like a prison”, two migrants said as they sat in the sweltering heat outside the Ħal Far centre, to which they were moved about a month ago.

The two migrants, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear their comments would affect their future prospects in Malta, said that being at Safi had sometimes felt “less lively” than a jail.

The former residents complained they were ignored by the personnel there, adding the only way they could grab their attention was by shouting.  Even then, they were sometimes ignored.

The migrants from the MV Lifeline said they were moved to Ħal Far detention centre around a month ago without explanation.

Questions sent to the authorities were unanswered at time of writing. In its annual report, the Monitoring Board for Detained Persons raised concerns that there was no apparent interaction between staff and detained persons at the Safi centre.

“To date, the only way in which detained persons and members of the board visiting the centre can alert the detention personnel on duty is by shouting and banging on the iron doors,” the board said.

“It’s only one big compound, and the area they have outside is so small,” one migrant said. “The walls felt so high, and we could never get out,” added his friend, also from the Lifeline.

“In Ħal Far, they guided us, they have been kind to us,” the two migrants said. However, they complained about lacking even a fan in the containers they are living in.

“I asked about the fan and a fridge to keep our food in, and they said these things would not be available to us,” one of them said.

Questions sent to the Home Affairs Ministry on the comments made by the migrants were unanswered at the time of writing.

Trafficked and kidnapped

Barely three months ago, the migrants left Libya in a small dinghy packed with 230 other hopefuls. They never made it to Italy, where they were told they would end up.  Instead, they made their way through Libyan waters and were rescued by an NGO vessel, only to be told they were unwanted by authorities from various countries.

Born in Sierra Leone, one migrant left his country looking for a better life. He made his way to Algeria in 2016, where rampant arrests of West African nationals were taking place. Only 23 years old at the time, he eventually started working for a contractor in the construction industry.

But he quickly realised his mistake: “They give you contracts but you start to realise that if you try to leave you get arrested.  If you are lucky and they like you, they keep you. If they don’t like you, they take you to the desert.”

He was eventually taken to the middle of the desert, where a police officer simply pointed and said, “Go that way”.

“You have nobody that will fight for you,” the policeman said.

“Libya is so dangerous,” another migrant chimed in. He explained that he had been kidnapped twice, captured again only days after running away from traffickers.

The migrant, originally from Nigeria, was eventually approached by a man who promised to take him to the sea. “He said I needed to go to Italy,” the migrant said.

After a few months working for the “kind” man who had approached him, he eventually made his way to the coast and got on the highly anticipated dinghy ride that brought him to Malta.

The migrants now seem hopeful about their future. Many are looking into ways of finding jobs. One migrant who spoke to The Sunday Times of Malta is trying to start a course for the bachelor’s in health science at the University of Malta.

“I don’t think about the future, I just know I am here and working on things,” said one of the migrants.

A numbers game

Malta, France, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium agreed to take in a share of the 233 migrants from aboard the vessel.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat declined to say how many migrants each of these States had accepted. But other countries were not so tight-lipped, with nearly all of them supplying the figures to The Sunday Times of Malta.

▪ France: 52 migrants

▪ Belgium: 6 (interviewed 18)

▪ Ireland: 26 (four unaccompanied minors, one more accepted than originally agreed)

▪ Netherlands: 20

▪ Italy: 0

▪ Authorities in Portugal and Luxembourg had not answered by the time of writing.

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