Malta: UNHCR deplores excessive force at peaceful demonstration, welcomes prompt government enquiry
UNHCR is deeply concerned about the apparent use of excessive force by Maltese soldiers when breaking up a peaceful demonstration by asylum seekers and irregular immigrants last week. The incident took place on a football pitch inside the Safi compound, a former barracks and one of Malta's four detention centres. The intervention of the military reportedly led to some 26 asylum seekers and migrants being hospitalized. While lamenting what appears to have been an unnecessary use of force, UNHCR appreciates the speed with which the government has announced an inquiry into the events.
In this context, UNHCR reiterates its advice that Malta should re-examine its detention policy, which involves mandatory detention for as long as 18 months and is by far the strictest in Europe. UNHCR is strongly opposed to the practice of mandatory detention, whereby asylum seekers are routinely detained until such time as they are recognized as refugees.
UNHCR also wishes to point out again that living conditions in the island's detention centres are of extremely poor standard, and that these conditions, along with the duration of detention in Malta, explain at least partly why protests such as the one on 13 January tend to occur (an earlier mass escape and protest on 29 October ended peacefully).
Some of the approximately 450 occupants of Safi are housed in tents that provide little protection from the winter cold and summer heat. Even those accommodated in buildings are for the most part living in very overcrowded and inadequate conditions. In the tented area, women and children have often been mixed in together with men who are not relatives, with inadequate safeguards against sexual abuse. In some parts of Safi and the other detention centres, even the bathrooms are mixed, and there are no doors on toilets or showers.
According to a number of witnesses at the scene, Thursday's protest was a peaceful one - with the protesters asking for their freedom and staging a sit-down on the football pitch - and on no account warranted the extremely violent response by troops dressed in full riot gear. Photographs taken at the scene show soldiers kicking protesters and bludgeoning them with batons, as other soldiers hold them pinned to the ground. Several of the protesters were apparently sufficiently badly injured to be kept in hospital overnight.
Two legal staff from UNHCR's office in Rome happened by chance to be on Malta at the time, and after initially being barred from visiting the injured in hospital, were subsequently able to visit some of those who had been discharged and returned to Safi Barracks. They said that around a dozen of them had visibly suffered injuries, including to the head and face. One had 15 stitches and another had six stitches in their heads. A third had three broken bones in his leg.
UNHCR has discussed Malta's detention policies and conditions with the authorities on a number of occasions over the past couple of years. Last June, UNHCR submitted a detailed report to the authorities which outlined a wide range of shortcomings in the four detention centres and contained numerous recommendations for changes. Despite a number of official letters requesting further dialogue, UNHCR has to date received no official written response from the Maltese authorities. However, Malta has recently reduced the maximum period it detains asylum seekers and irregular migrants to 18 months. Prior to that, detention was open-ended.
UNHCR guidelines call on states not to detain asylum seekers, except in certain very specific circumstances. Children should not be detained at all. In addition, refugees are often already badly traumatized and their mental health can be further affected if they are subjected to de facto imprisonment in their asylum country.
UNHCR fully appreciates Malta's concerns that, given its proximity to major smuggling routes from North Africa, it risks being overburdened with asylum seekers and irregular migrants - although it does not believe such concerns warrant using detention as a deterrent. Several other new EU states have seen the number of asylum seekers climb in the last couple of years - against the general trend of a sharp reduction in numbers entering the EU. Unfortunately, despite the EU's attempts to harmonize its legislation, it has still not made any parallel effort to spread the responsibility throughout the European Union, rather than stand by and watch individual states' systems overcome by a sudden surge in numbers.
Malta received 116 asylum cases in 2001, 350 in 2002, 590 in 2003 and 1,227 during 2004.