National legislation provides that UNHCR shall have access to asylum applicants, including those in detention and in airport or port transit zones. Moreover, the law also states that a person seeking asylum in Malta shall be informed of his right to contact UNHCR. There is no provision in the law with respect to access to asylum applicants by NGOs, however, it states that legal advisers who assist applicants for asylum shall have access to closed areas such as detention facilities and transit zones for the purpose of consulting the applicant. Thus, NGOs have indirect access to asylum applicants through lawyers who work for them. In practice, however, asylum seekers located far from the centre or in closed centres do not face major obstacles in accessing NGOs and UNHCR.
Access to the IRC is regulated by AWAS and is not granted to family members or NGOs on grounds of the medical clearance conducted in this facility. However, access to the open section of the IRC is granted to UNHCR and NGOs requesting access in order to provide services.
Since all applicants arriving irregularly in Malta are detained, access to detention became a priority for UNHCR and NGOs. In 2019, access was revoked after two leading NGOs filed Habeas Corpus cases which led to the acknowledgment of the unlawfulness of detention and the release of several applicants. Access was subsequently denied for NGOs for several weeks without any explanation. In 2020, access was denied again for several months to NGOs but also UNHCR, officially as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Access was authorised again in July 2020, before being denied once more from August to October 2020. Very few visits occurred in the following year due to COVID-19 restrictions in place in the country; partial access for NGOs was finally restored only since June 2021. Currently, they do not have access to the living quarters of detention centres and are not permitted to organise group sessions with detained persons. Only UNHCR is granted such access. NGOs are only permitted to visit clients and by appointment despite having have repeatedly requested such access from the responsible Ministry, access that had consistently been denied.
In practice, NGOs receive daily calls from detained persons requesting legal aid. Police numbers, exact names and countries of origins of these individuals have to be registered in order to be granted a visit by the Detention Services and reserve a slot for the only available boardroom. NGOs are usually allocated up to four hours, during which the lawyers (accompanied by an interpreter, as needed) are able to talk to between six to eight persons. There are weeks when NGOs visit a detention centre twice, whilst there are times when weeks pass without any slot being allocated.
NGOs repeatedly flagged a number of limitations with the current system. Presently, detained persons rely on the availability of a functioning telephone in order to call them and this is not always available. For the second half of the year, no telephone has been operational in any living area at Safi. Persons who need to call NGOs or other persons/organisations, are required to request this from the on-duty Detention Service personnel in order for them to use the office phone.
The authorities seem to assume that detained persons – including newly arrived asylum-seekers – are aware of the existence of NGOs, the nature of their services and how to get in touch with them. Invariably, the most vulnerable persons and often those most in need to be identified as such and be provided with information, assistance and referrals are not the ones calling.
This lack of access is particularly problematic due to the deadlines stipulated in Maltese legislation for the filing of appeals against Detention Orders (3 days), Removal Orders (3 days), age assessment decisions (3 days), and negative asylum decisions (15 days) are extremely stringent and template application forms are not provided. The actual deadlines amount more or less to actual time needed to get the approval for a visit the following week.
NGOs also report that legal aid lawyers provided by the State do not visit the detention centres on a regular basis.
 Regulation 16(a) Procedural Regulations.
 Regulation 3(3)(c) Declaration Regulations.
 Regulation 7(3) Procedural Regulations.
 Court of Magistrates, 7 October 2019, Mohammed Abdallah Mohammed 19O-030, available at: https://bit.ly/2V6lVcs; Court of Magistrates, Zeeshan Saleem 19N-24, 8 October 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3b7iLea.