Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović strongly urges Maltese authorities to take immediate action to improve detention conditions and avoid endangering people in distress at sea. 32 asylum seekers who were detained at sea off Malta in 2020 have filed a constitutional case against the Maltese government for breaching their fundamental rights. The Maltese Interior Minister stresses the need to strengthen cooperation with Libyan authorities, notorious for human rights violations.

During her recent trip to Malta, the Human Rights Commissioner visited the Safi Detention Centre as well as two open centres in Hal Far. There she met with authorities and asylum seekers and migrants, and noted recent attempts to improve living conditions in the centres. Nonetheless she was “struck by the deplorable situation in Block A in the Safi Detention Centre” and “strongly urged the authorities to take immediate action to ensure dignified conditions for all those currently held there”. The Commissioner noted a reduction in the number of people detained, including children, but stated that “uncertainties remain about the legal grounds and the safeguards related to some detention measures” and called on “authorities to focus on investing in alternatives to detention and to ensure that no children or vulnerable persons are detained”. The Commissioner further underlined the need for independent monitoring of detention facilities and unhindered access for NGOs to provide support and assistance to those detained in Malta, a country where illegal detention of asylum seekers has long been the norm. In a recent ruling on a case filed by aditus foundation, the Magistrates Court as a Court of Criminal Judicature released three asylum seekers held illegally in detention on public health grounds for 85 and 66 days. Director of aditus foundation Neil Falzon stated: “Yet again, we have to rely on our Courts to remind the Government that the situation in Safi Barracks is unacceptable. We appreciate that the Covid-19 pandemic presents challenges on how Malta is to receive asylum-seekers arriving, yet it is imperative that the law is respected at all times. It is especially important when the law imposes procedures and guarantees to protect people from detention that is arbitrary and unlawful. Again, we urge the authorities to review its detention policies and practices to put an end to the human rights violations that we see every single day”. In relation to people in distress at sea, the Human Rights Commissioner stressed that their rights “should never be put at risk” and urged Maltese authorities to “ensure that their actions do not lead, either directly or indirectly, to returns to Libya, which is not a safe place for disembarkation”. Authorities including the Armed Forces of Malta (AFM) have a history of sabotage, delays and non-assistance in the Maltese SAR zone. Recent examples include failures to respond promptly to alerts of 34 people in distress in Maltese waters on 18 October, 49 people in distress on 4 October, and 70 people in distress on 27 September.

During spring 2020, when both Italy and Malta closed their ports to survivors from the Mediterranean, due alleged health risks related to the COVID-19 pandemic, hundreds of people were detained offshore just outside of Maltese waters on government-chartered tourist boats. On 6 June 2020, 37 days after the deployment of the first chartered vessel Europa II, 425 detainees were allowed to disembark and placed in detention onshore. With the assistance of lawyers from lawyers from ECRE members aditus foundation and the Jesuit Refugee Service Malta, as well as Mifsud and Mifsud Advocates, 32 asylum seekers have now filed a constitutional case on the on the basis that such detention violated their fundamental rights. According to the complaint filed against the prime minister, the home affairs minister and the state advocate, the detainees were “never informed about their right to seek asylum, they were never given a Detention Order, and no one ever explained their rights to seek redress”. Further, the detainees had no information on the length of their detainment under dire conditions onboard the tourist vessels described as a “floating prison” and lacked access to legal representation, support and ability to communicate with family members.

The Greek migration and asylum minister, Notis Mitarakis, and Malta’s interior minister Byron Camilleri met in Valletta on the sidelines of the 10-year anniversary conference of the European Asylum Support Office (EASO).  The two ministers discussed common challenges in managing migration as “front-line” states and their common positions regarding the new EU Pact on Migration and Asylum. Such shared challenges reportedly include ensuring effective “border protection” and a system of “solidarity as a prerequisite for a resilient and fair common European migration and asylum policy”. Notably the Maltese minister also stressed the need to strengthen cooperation with the Libyan authorities, notorious for human rights abuses and links to the criminal networks that smuggle, extort and torture people on the move. 52 asylum seekers recently sued Malta for sending a private fishing vessel to rescue them and then push them back to Libya in 2020. Referring to closure of Maltese ports due to Covid-19, prime minister Robert Abela commented: “We could have done nothing and would have been within our legal rights. But our conscience did not allow that”.

An international commission has been launched demanding freedom for the so-called El Hiblu 3. The three El Hiblu youths – aged 15, 16 and 19 at the time – were arrested and charged with crimes amounting to terrorist activity in March 2019, over their alleged leading role in protests onboard the Merchant Vessel ElHiblu1 that had rescued 108 people. The protests broke out over the survivors’ fear of being returned to Libya. After seven months of imprisonment the three survivors have since been on parole in Malta having to register daily with the police and attend monthly hearings with the prosecutors and facing up to 30 years of imprisonment. Given the doubtful evidence and lack of proportionality of the charges, NGOs and human rights activists broadly agree that Maltese authorities are making an example of the three youths whose main ‘crime’ was fluency in English to deter arrivals.  The new civil society commission calling for their freedom consists of Amnesty International Europe Regional Director Nils Muižnieks, the Archbishop’s Delegate for Migrants in Malta, Anton D’Amato, members of the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights as well as activists.

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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.