Conditions in detention facilities

Malta

Country Report: Conditions in detention facilities Last updated: 19/05/21

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Overall living conditions

According to Regulation 6A of the Reception Regulations, applicants for international protection shall be detained in specialised facilities and they shall be kept separate, insofar as possible, from third country nationals who are not asylum-seekers. They shall also have access to open-air spaces. Separate accommodation for families shall be put in place in order to guarantee adequate privacy as well as separate accommodation for male and female applicants. The policy document published at the end of 2015 following the transposition commits to improve the quality of living conditions in the detention centres. The document foresees that detention facilities shall comprise of, or have access to, a clinic, medical isolation facilities, telephone facilities, an office for the delivery of information by the IPA, rooms for interviews with the IPA and NGOs, facilities for leisure, and the delivery of education programmes as well as a place of worship.

The detention centres are managed by the Detention Service (DS), a government body that falls under the Ministry for Home Affairs, National Security and Law Enforcement. The DS was set up specifically “to cater for the operation of all closed accommodation centres; provide secure but humane accommodation for detained persons; and maintain a safe and secure environment”[1] within detention centres. The DS is neither established nor regulated by a specific law. It is made up of personnel seconded from the armed forces and civilians specifically recruited for the purpose, many of whom are ex-security personnel. DS staff receive some in-service training, however people recruited for the post of DS officer or seconded from the security services are not required to have particular skills or competencies. The situation deteriorated further in 2020 with increased overcrowding. Asylum seekers were also left detained for months without being given any information, without the possibility to contact anyone, and without being supported by anyone since access to detention was restricted for UNHCR and NGOs for several months.

Despite the entry into force of the Regulations in 2015, NGOs visiting detention on a regular basis have not noticed any improvement since the reform. Detention conditions remain very difficult and precarious and have deteriorated greatly in 2018 and 2019 due to overpopulation.[2]

Asylum seekers and other third-country nationals, who have over-stayed their visa, are detained in the military barracks, which offer inadequate sanitation and hygiene facilities and allow no privacy for the detainees. Whilst detainees are provided with a bed each, there is little space in between the beds and no place where they may store their personal possessions. Detainees are provided with cleaning materials and are expected to take care of the cleaning of the centre. Although detainees are issued with basic items of clothing upon arrival, there is no systematic or consistent practice for the distribution of clothes which are weather-appropriate. Most of the clothing which is provided to detainees is donated on a charitable basis to the detention service management and is then distributed accordingly. Moreover, there is little to no heating or ventilation, exposing migrants to extreme cold and heat.

In 2020, NGOs visiting detention were not allowed to enter the living premises and could only meet with detainees in containers outside the buildings. No monitoring of the detention conditions is tolerated. However, detainees regularly report terrible living conditions with severe overcrowding and unsanitary conditions, caused by the limited availability of shared toilets and showers. Some buildings are known to have one shower for hundreds of detainees. In some buildings of the detention centres, detainees may enjoy limited time in the open, while in other parts – such as China House – detainees are simply not allowed to go out of the building and have no access to fresh air or sunlight.

Most detainees report the lack of appropriate clothes or shoes but also lack of sheets and blankets. Lawyers assisting detainees report seeing their clients only wearing underpants and open sandals even in winter.

As previously mentioned, the CPT report of March 2021 highlights that living conditions in detention are overall deplorable, with migrants deprived of their liberty and kept in overcrowded units, with nothing to do and very minimal contact with the outside world for prolonged periods.

The CPT reported after their visit of the different detention facilities that shower facilities were filthy and did not always function; showerheads were missing; and the sanitary area would constantly flood. The delegation noticed that mould was present on the walls and ceilings and that detainees often used their lunchboxes to wash themselves from the wash basin tap due to the dysfunctional showers. They noted that detainees only possess one set of clothes (generally the ones that they had arrived in), so they must borrow clothes from other migrants when they wash their clothes.

In Lyster, the CPT noted that the material conditions in Zone D were “dilapidated”, with a lack of upkeep and walls covered in graffiti and mould. The dormitories were severely overcrowded with 20 to 30 persons held in 40m², leaving less than 2m² of living space to each detainee. They also mentioned that migrants had no access to outdoor space or to any activity of any kind. In China House, the delegation also noted that no activity was offered to detainees who are spending 24 hours per day locked in their units with nothing to do for several months.

The CPT delegation also shared concerns that the tap water was non-potable and that no bottled water was provided to remedy such situation.

In September 2020, local media shared a video seemingly shot by detainees themselves at Safi detention centre. The video showed asylum-seekers detained for a year, begging to be sent home and sharing their experience “of living in overcrowded dormitories where they say a lack of hygiene, medical attention and nutritious food has led to deteriorating mental and physical health as well as suicide attempts”.[3]

The newspaper also highlighted that concerns of subnormal living conditions and human rights abuse are not a first for the Safi detention centre.

The Home Affairs Minister addressed the situation, simply stating that Malta is facing disproportionate pressure from irregular migration for years and that the prevention of migrant arrivals and the return of as many irregular migrants as possible remains the priority.[4]

Later that month, a delegation from the UN Human Rights Office visited Malta for a week-long mission.

At the end of the visit, the delegation stated that migrants living in detention centre in Malta are reported to be held in severely overcrowded conditions with little access to daylight, clean water, and sanitation. The UN High Commissioner added that “the pressures on the reception system in Malta have long been known but the pandemic has clearly made an already difficult situation worse”.[5]

As already mentioned, unaccompanied minors are detained before an age assessment is conducted. This means that they are detained together with adults due to the fact that detention centres are overcrowded and very limited attention is giving to them.

Moreover, reading and leisure materials are not provided, and detainees rely on NGO staff visiting detention, as well as friends and family on the outside, to bring them books, magazines, and other basic recreational items. Depending on the detention centre, detainees may not have access to phones, not to mention television or Internet access.

The Malta Chamber of Psychologists reacted to media reports on the detention condition by stating that “many residing in detention centres in Malta passed through traumatic experiences that made them deserving of the highest level of care”, adding that “being subjected to further undignified conditions in detention might be beyond what they could cope with”. They urged for detention centres to provide detainees with humane conditions”.[6]

In recent years there have been a number of incidents within the centres which have raised concerns because of allegations of excessive use of force, as well as the lack of any systematic review of DS conduct and of any effective remedies to provide redress wherever abuse or ill-treatment by DS staff is alleged.

The use of excessive force and other questionable forms of punishment remains an issue primarily in contexts such as protests or escapes from detention, when force is used in an attempt to assert control or, at times, to discipline detainees, as is evident from the recent protests in 2019 and 2020.

This led to several protests by detainees over the course of the year.

In January 2020, detainees started a protest which led to the intervention of the police who arrested 19 people who were believed to have planned the protest.[7] Only a few days after that riot at Safi detention centre, twenty-two migrants were convicted to a nine-month prison sentence for having “insulted and threatened public officials, violently resisting arrest and slightly injuring five detention officers”. They were also accused of taking part in a rioting mob and failing to disperse when ordered to, conspiracy to commit a crime, voluntary damage, disturbing the peace, disobeying lawful orders, threatening public officers and throwing stones at private property”.[8]

NGOs reacted in a press statement on the “shameful treatment of arrested migrants” by the Malta Police Force. NGOs exposed the way migrants were brought to Court, tied together in pairs and displayed to the general public, contrary to standard practice. They qualified this behaviour as inhumane treatment and prejudicial to the principle of presumption of innocence. Moreover, they emphasised that minors were among the accused and should therefore have been awarded specific protections throughout criminal proceedings.[9]

In February 2021, five young migrants were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to participating in a riot at Safi detention centre which occurred in September 2020. Two were sentenced to 30 months imprisonment while the other three, minors at the time, received an 18-month sentence.[10]

Throughout the year, several migrants tried to escape the detention centres.[11] In September, five migrants tried to escape Safi during a riot. A security guard then shot at one of the migrants who sustained light injuries. The escaping migrants were later caught and taken to Court together with 27 other detainees accused of causing damages. The Police stated that seven officers were injured during the riot. A spokesperson for the Home Affairs Ministry stated that guards are not allowed to carry firearms in closed centres.[12]

In the aforementioned CPT report, the Committee reported having received several allegations of excessive use of force by Detention Service staff and private security staff following riots. According to migrants reporting to the CPT, staff purposely shook the fence while some detainees were climbing it, causing them to fall to the ground where they were subjected to baton blows.

The CPT also reported the unwarranted use of pepper spray by custodial staff against detained migrants.

On 2 September 2020, a dramatic incident happened at Lyster detention centre where an asylum seeker died after he fell while trying to escape. The individual fell at 5am and received assistance by nurses on site but was only transferred to hospital hours later where he was certified dead at 11am. An inquiry is still on going.[13] The CPT investigated said incident and “cannot reassure itself that staff, including health-care staff, had reacted sufficiently promptly when crucial help was needed to attempt to save this young man’s life from the effects of suspected internal bleeding over a period of at least three hours”.[14]

It was also reported in the media that migrants in detention might have been mistreated and/or tortured. EASO confirmed this in January 2021, having received several reports from migrants detained at Lyster and Safi detention centre, particularly mentioning physical torture, beatings, solitary confinement, denial or delay of medical care, and also electrocution. Addressing the issue, EASO stated that the Agency is taking such allegations very seriously and immediately brought them to the attention of the responsible Maltese authorities. It added that such issues are raised with the national authorities on several occasions.[15]

It was also reported anonymously from the European agency, that they receive reports of systematic abuse and violence, and that the agency noticed a high number of referrals to the psychiatric hospital because of frequent attempted suicide.[16]

The UNHCR Representative in Malta also indicated that her office received reports of some physical and verbal abuse against detained asylum seekers as well as suicide attempts in closed centres.[17]

The Home Affairs Ministry stated that “no form of physical abuse is tolerated inside the detention centres, including scuffles between the detainees themselves. Detention Services officials are requested to report on each and every incident arising inside the centres. There have not been reports of torture and such instances would be referred to the police immediately”. They also admitted that “there have been instances where migrants had to be referred to a psychiatrist, however, only few of such cases were confirmed to be mental-health illnesses. In such cases, the migrants are provided the necessary care by Mount Carmel Hospital.[18]

In March 2021, the ECtHR found violations of articles 3, 5(1), and 34 of the European Convention on Human Rights in the case of a Nigerian national placed in immigration detention pending deportation for fourteen months.[19]  The applicant’s complaints concerned the conditions of his detention; not being given the opportunity to correspond with the Court without interference by the prison authorities; and being denied access to materials intended to substantiate his application.

Regarding article 3, the Court considered several aspects of his detention and concluded, overall, that conditions were inadequate in particular because of the time spent in isolation without exercise (he was kept in a container seventy-five days without access to natural light or air). The Court also noted that he was later unnecessarily detained with individuals under Covid-19 quarantine, a measure that did not comply with basic sanitary requirements. The Court concluded unanimously that the conditions of his detention were a violation of the applicant’s article 3 rights.

The Court found a violation of article 34, considering that the Maltese authorities had not guaranteed the applicant’s right to apply before the Court since they tampered with his correspondence and did not guarantee adequate legal representation. Regarding the correspondence with the Court, it was concluded that, firstly, the applicant had not been provided with copies of documents he needed to substantiate his claim before the Court; and secondly, that the confidentiality of his correspondence was not respected. According to the Court, the authorities’ failures amounted to an unjustified interference with his right of individual petition. Regarding his right to legal representation, the Court considered that the legal aid lawyer appointed by the authorities failed to keep contact with the applicant and abandoned her mandate without informing him and without making any submissions when requested. Informed of the situation, the Government did not take any action to remedy the situation. In the circumstances, those failings had amounted to ineffective representation in special circumstances which incurred the State’s liability under the Convention.

Finally, the Court also held unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 5(1) since the authorities were not diligent enough in processing his deportation and that the applicant’s detention therefore ceased to be lawful.

Health care in detention

All detainees are usually seen by a doctor in the first week after their arrival. The services of a doctor are available in the detention centres two to three mornings a week. However, there is no systematic medical screening in place for every newly arrived detainee, nor is there any screening to identify possible victims of torture. Communication with health professionals is very often difficult, if not impossible, as the services of a translator or cultural mediator are not provided. In emergencies, the detainees are usually taken to the nearest health centre. Migrants and asylum seekers requiring more specialised care are referred to the general hospital for an appointment.

Practical difficulties arise for asylum seekers who are detained, as the detention system seriously hinders their access to health services. Although health services are provided in the detention centres, these are not sufficient to meet the entirety of needs in the centres.

NGOs visiting detainees in 2019 reported that migrants faced particularly long waiting times, up to several weeks, before having access to a doctor when requested.

The majority of applicants are now detained under Health Regulations or de facto detained and must undergo a medical examination (consisting of X-rays) to check for tuberculosis.

No other medical examination is carried out. However, even when medically checked and cleared, applicants might not be released since release is decided as and when space is available in reception centres.

Lawyers assisting people in detention report that asylum seekers are very often in a poor state of health due to prolonged detention in atrocious conditions. It was noticed on several occasions that many detainees had scabies.

The medical team present in detention struggles to cope with the demands, and many detainees report that nurses only provide paracetamol.

As already mentioned, many detainees are regularly sent to the psychiatric hospital after suicide attempts. In January 2021, a nurses’ union claimed that detainees were “purposely self-harming to get themselves transferred out of detention centres” and asked for the hospital to refuse admissions of such people.[20]

Such a statement left the NGOs shocked at this lack of sensitivity. They explained that their experience in detention confirmed the severe psychological harm caused by prolonged detention in undignified conditions. The NGOs stated that self-harm and suicide attempts were not abuses of the system but the “extremely worrying effects of a policy that entirely dehumanises people”. They stressed the need for all people to receive appropriate treatment for their mental health conditions without discrimination.[21]

It is reported that, in 2020, 93 detainees were taken to the psychiatric hospital (60 in 2019 and 17 in 2018) in order to be treated for self-harm or suicide attempts. Times of Malta, reporting about the issue in March 2021, spoke to a former employee of the Safi detention centre who claimed that migrants with mental health issues were deprived of adequate care. She told the newspaper that emergency services were called in none of the cases of attempted suicide she knew of.[22]

No specific information is available about how the authorities are managing the Covid-19 situation in detention, but lawyers visiting detention report that most DS staff do not wear facemasks, nor do they respect social distancing measures. No information is provided about the number of people infected with Covid-19, but people are regularly put in isolation in different parts of the detention centre.

The CPT noted that serious efforts were undertaken by the public health team to screen and detect Covid-19 in detention centres with swab testing programs. Nevertheless, during its visit, the delegation found several people who had tested positive and who were never separated from other detainees. In the IRC in Marsa in particular, the CPT found “an establishment in disarray, which has allowed a dangerous, and potential fatal, environment for detained migrants and its own staff to develop and is symptomatic of the institutional neglect referred to above. (…) [T]his situation of disarray, negligence and the dangerous environment created by knowingly locking Covid-19 positive migrants together with non-positive migrants for long periods of time, may well raise issues not only under Article 3 of the ECHR but also as regards Malta’s positive obligation to protect life under Article 2 of the ECHR”.[23]

It is important to mention that in 2020 migrants were regularly blamed for Covid-19 in the public discourse. For instance, the Prime Minister himself explained in August 2020 that the drastic spike of Covid-19 cases during the summer was due to the inclusion in official statistics of rescued migrants who had tested positive.[24] The Medical Association of Malta promptly reacted and claimed the Prime Minister’s comments were unfair adding that “the government’s decision to allow mass events like parties, despite the expert advice of the superintendent for public health, was the only cause of this spike since migrants have been quarantined immediately.” The NGO Repubblika also condemned the Prime Minister’s use of language, suggesting it could incite racial prejudice.[25]

 

 

[1] For more information see Ministry for Home Affairs, Detention services, available at: http://bit.ly/1M7HMkS.

[2] Information provided by Katrine Camilleri, Director of JRS Malta, January 2018.

[3]The Times of Malta, ‘Watch: Migrants in covert video beg to be sent back home’, 6 September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3f4ebSJ.

[4] The Times of Malta, ‘Watch: Migrants in covert video beg to be sent back home’, 6 September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3f4ebSJ.

[5] Times of Malta, ‘UN slams “shocking” conditions for migrants in Malta’, 2 October 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3cZeRGj.

[6] Times of Malta, ‘Human rights cannot be ignored, Chamber of Psychologists insists’, 10 September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3si3i3O.

[7] Lovin Malta, ‘19 People Arrested In Late Night Protest At Ħal Safi Detention Centre’, 7 January 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3rjYYjf.

[8] The Independent, Safi detention centre, available at: https://bit.ly/2Jes67C.

[9]  Press Statement available at: https://bit.ly/2UfVpx7.

[10] Lovin Malta, ‘Five Migrants Sentenced to Jail For Rioting At Safi Detention Centre’, 19 February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/2QwVvkv.

[11] Newsbook, ‘Asylum seekers escape from Safi detention centre’, 25 July 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3scKoew.

[12] Malta Today, ‘Safi detention centre riot: Private security guard shot migrant who tried to escape’, 18 September 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3c7fNtc.

[13] Times of Malta, ‘Man dies after trying to escape migrant detention centre’, 2 September 2000, available at: https://bit.ly/31av9a5.

[14] CPT, Report to the Maltese Government on the visit to Malta carried out by the European Committee for the      Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from 17 to 22 September 2020, March 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3mPtelf.

[15] The Times of Malta, ‘Detained migrants have reported being tortured in Malta’, 31 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/318lX64.

[16] Ibid.

[17]  The Times of Malta, ‘Migrant detention numbers shrink, fears about child detainees remain’, 7 February 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3vPfwD4.

[18]The Times of Malta, ‘Detained migrants have reported being tortured in Malta’, 31 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3f5rZMX.

[19] ECtHR, Feilazoo v. Malta, Application No. 6865/19, Judgment 11 March 2021.

[20] Times of Malta, ‘Union claims migrants are “purposely self-harming” to enter Mount Carmel’, 29 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3scNO0Q.  

[21]  aditus foundation, ‘Press statement from the Malta Refugee Council, network of Maltese NGOs working for the promotion of the fundamental human rights of persons in forced migration’, 29 January 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3tOrj2r.

[22] Times of Malta, ‘More detainees treated for self-harm, suicide attempts’, March 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3abuYjt

[23] CPT, Report to the Maltese Government on the visit to Malta carried out by the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment from 17 to 22 September 2020, March 2021, available at: https://bit.ly/3mPtelf.

[24]  Times of Malta, ‘Isolated migrants to blame for spike in reported COVID-19 cases – Robert Abela’, 3 August 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3cXH9kD

[25] FRA, ‘Migration: Key fundamental rights concerns, Quarterly Bulletin, Nov 2020’, available at: https://bit.ly/3cblrdC.

Table of contents

  • Statistics
  • Overview of the legal framework
  • Overview of the main changes since the previous report update
  • Asylum Procedure
  • Reception Conditions
  • Detention of Asylum Seekers
  • Content of International Protection
  • ANNEX I – Transposition of the CEAS in national legislation