UNHCR says Maltese troops seemed to use excessive force to quell peaceful demo by detained asylum seekers
GENEVA, Jan 19 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency says that Maltese soldiers seem to have used excessive force when breaking up a peaceful demonstration by detained asylum seekers and irregular migrants last week, and listed a number of concerns about Malta's strict detention polices and practices.
UNHCR's spokesman, Ron Redmond, told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that the agency was advising Malta to re-examine its detention policy, adding 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." He added, however, that the agency has appreciated the Maltese government's swift setting up of an inquiry into the incident.
The incident took place on a football pitch inside the Safi compound - a former barracks and the biggest of Malta's four detention centres. Graphic pictures of soldiers in full riot gear kicking protesters and bludgeoning them with batons were shown on Maltese television and published in newspapers, triggering an unprecedented debate about the incident itself and Malta's detention system, which Redmond described as "by far the strictest in Europe."
He said that according to a number of witnesses at the scene, last 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." The intervention of the military reportedly led to some 26 asylum seekers and migrants being hospitalized. Several of the injured protesters are believed to have been 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.
The Safi detention centre - part of a large military compound built in the 1960s - has been used for housing asylum seekers and illegal immigrants since 2002. The Maltese Artillery Corps still occupies other parts of the compound, and the detention centre is managed by the military.
At times, the Safi centre - which is supposed to have a capacity of around 270 inmates - has been severely overcrowded. The current number housed there is around 450.
A rare visitor in the autumn, when a similar number were detained in Safi, was greeted by an excited 21-year-old Ethiopian asylum seeker, called Shelms.
"Come here, come here, come to see our cage," she shouted, beckoning the visitor into her room which was packed with beds, personal belongings and children sitting on a wet floor. "We are 12 women and 17 children with no space to move around," said Shelms, adding that the roof leaked when it rained.
"There is no doctor here," said another woman detainee, 28-year-old Rufta from Eritrea. "Every time we are sick, we have to go to the hospital and they send us handcuffed, as if we were criminals. I don't like this and I feel ashamed."
During periods of severe overcrowding, some of the 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.
"The conditions are what they are," said Mohammed, a 32-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker, who had arrived in Malta nine months earlier via Libya. "We haven't committed any crime. We just want to start a new life."
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 is strongly opposed to the practice of mandatory detention," Redmond said.
He said that 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," but added that the agency 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," said Redmond, "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, which is the smallest EU member state (with a total population of just under 400,000), received 350 asylum cases in 2002; 590 in 2003; and 1,227 during 2004.
By Rupert Colville in Geneva