Six people including three children who had been illegally detained were released from the Safi Barracks after an intervention from ECRE member the aditus foundation. Maltese authorities have defended the controversial offshore detention of more than 400 people in 2020 as a public health measure in reponse to the Covid-19 pandemic: now, court testimony reveals they had tested negative for the virus prior to their detention.

On 21 January, lawyers from the aditus foundation ensured the release of six people from the notorious Safi barracks including three children who had been illegally detained for 58 days. The application on behalf of a total of seven people was rejected on a pure “formality” according to aditus. Yet, the immediate release of six of them was “quickly confirmed by the same Government entities that, just a few minutes earlier, had denied having the legal authority to detain them”. A second Court petition filed the same day by aditus on behalf of the seventh applicant – a teenager who was rejected in the first application – was also rejected. The Court of Magistrates based the decision the fact that he allegedly suffered from a contagious illness. However, aditus points out that: “the Court failed to appreciate our observation that Maltese nationals are not locked up in Safi Barracks to receive medication. Secondly, no medical evidence was brought in support of the claim that our client’s illness was actually contagious. In Safi, he is not in medical isolation and at no point was the Court alerted to any public health danger posed by his presence in Court”. Further, the organisation states: “Malta has reverted to arbitrarily detaining children, in violation of its own laws and policies, simply because they are here seeking refuge… It is high time to hold the State to account for these gross violations of the rights of the most vulnerable!”.

The Maltese closure of ports, suspension of search and rescue and the offshore detainment of more than 400 people in the spring of 2020 in former tourist vessels created an international outcry by NGOs and human rights actors including the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Dunja Mijatović. 32 people have taken the government to court on the basis that their detention at sea breached their human rights. The authorities defended the widely criticised use of floating detention centres by claiming it was an emergency measure to ensure public health at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the testimony of the general manager of Captain Morgan, the company supplying the four tourist vessels used for detention at sea in 2020, seriously call this explanation into question. According to the testimony, migrants were tested for Covid-19 and taken on board the boats only after they received negative results. The manager further confirmed that no quarantine measures were taken on the vessels. While the Captain Morgan executive was unsure exactly how the operation began, he confirmed it was upon request from the Maltese government. Further, he stated he did not believe a tender had gone out and confirmed that the registration of the boats changed from “passenger vessels” to “workboats” at around the same time that the government engaged the company to detain migrants.

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Photo: (CC) mini_malist, February 2019

This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.