The policy document published at the end of 2015 following the transposition of the Reception Regulations 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.
According to 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 detention centres are managed by the Detention Service (DS), a government body which falls under the Ministry for Home Affairs. 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” within detention centres. The DS is made up of personnel seconded from the armed forces and civilians specifically recruited for the purpose. 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.
According to publicly available sources, prospective applicants must satisfy the following (exhaustive) list of criteria to be hired as a detention officer; be able to communicate in the Maltese and English languages; be in possession of at least a Secondary School Leaving Certificate or comparable, preferably with passes in Maltese and English; be in possession of a clean driving license in categories B; be declared physically and mentally fit following examination.
The Detention Services Regulations of 2016 provide the necessary framework for adequate receptions conditions to asylum seekers and migrants detained under the Receptions Regulations or the Immigration Act. Part II of the Regulations provide for rules of conduct for Detention Services officers, Part III concerns the rights of detained persons, Part IV establishes rules on maintenance of security and safety and in particular rules concerning the confinement of a detained persons for safety reasons, medical reasons or due to a violent behaviour, Part V regulates access to the detention centres and Part VI the discharge of detainees.
According to the Regulations, the “purpose of the detention centres shall be to provide for the secure but humane accommodation of detained persons in a regime allowing as much freedom as possible, consistent with maintaining a safe and secure environment.” Accordingly, female detained persons shall be provided with sleeping accommodation separate from male detained persons.
The Regulations provide that every detainee must be provided with a document (known as the “compact”) setting out certain rights to be enjoyed and responsibilities to be undertaken by detained persons during their stay at the detention centres in a language they understand, and a copy of the regulations must be made available to any detained person who requires it.
The Regulations provide that a personal record for each detained person shall be prepared and maintained and the Head Detention Services must provide a detained person enquiring on his case, with an update on the progress of any relevant matter relating to him as follows when this is made available, this includes asylum applications and applications made under the Immigration Act and any judicial proceedings pending before the Immigration Appeals Board or the Maltese Courts.
Detained persons are entitled to retain all their personal property, other than cash, for their own use at the detention centre save where such retention is contrary to the interests of safety or security or is incompatible with the storage facilities provided at the centre. Furthermore, detained persons may wear clothing of their own insofar as it is suitable and clean and are permitted to arrange for the supply of sufficient clean clothing to them from outside the detention centre. Where necessary, all detained persons shall be provided with clothing adequate for warmth and to ensure the detained persons’ health in accordance with arrangements approved by the Minister. Non-governmental organisations shall be permitted to distribute clothing to all detained persons in accordance with arrangements approved by the Head Detention Services. Facilities for the washing and drying of items of clothing shall be provided.
With respect to the food provided to detainees, the Regulations provide that he food must be “wholesome, nutritious, well prepared and served, reasonably varied, sufficient in quantity” and insofar as possible “meet all religious, dietary, cultural and medical needs. The officer in charge of a centre must furthermore inspect the food at regular intervals and must report any deficiency or defect to the Head Detention Services.
The Regulations provide that accommodation must have adequate lighting, heating, ventilation and fittings adequate for health. Every detained person shall have proper regard for personal hygiene, including toilet articles, separate facilities for females and males, access to facilities to shave and have their hair cut.
All detained persons must be provided with recreational, educational, and physical activities and a library should be provided in every centre. Detainees must be allowed at least 1 hour in the open air every day. Moreover, the practice of religion in detention centres shall take account of the diverse cultural and religious background of detained persons.
All detained persons shall have access to public telephones at the detention centres.
Regarding healthcare, the Regulations provide that every detained person must be given a medical examination by the medical officer or another registered medical practitioner as soon as possible after his admission to the detention centre. Furthermore, the medical officer must report to the officer in charge on the case of any detained person whose health is likely to be injuriously affected by continued detention or any conditions of detention, especially in case of suicidal thoughts. The medical officer shall pay special attention to any detained person whose mental condition appears to require it, and make any special arrangements including counselling arrangements which appear necessary for his supervision or care. The Head Detention Services must render a monthly report to the Minister on any incidents arising.
Overall living conditions
Despite the commitments made in the 2015 Strategy Document and the Detention Regulations, the Maltese detention centres have time and time again been reported to offer substandard living conditions likely to amount to inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to Article 3 ECHR.
NGOs lost access to the living quarters in 2020 and are now only able to visit detainees in a Boardroom on the margin of the Safi Detention Centre. They are therefore unable to provide accurate and detailed information regarding detention conditions. The UNHCR, which reported still having access to the living quarters, has not provided any comprehensive update on the current situation, remaining largely silent despite the concerns expressed by NGOs and applicants. Requests for information to the Head of the Detention Services have consistently been ignored.
The Monitoring Board for Detained Persons is currently the only entity monitoring detention conditions. It is established by the Monitoring Board for Detained Persons Regulations and falls under the Ministry for Home Affairs. The Board is composed of a Chairman, a minimum of two and a maximum of four members, including the secretary appointed by the Minister for Home Affairs. According to the Regulations, the Board reports and monitors on conditions of detention. It is also empowered to investigate complaints from detainees and decide on such complaint. Its opinions are not binding to the Head of the Detention Services. There is limited information on the acitvity of the Board, which rarely engages with NGOs and detainees and has no published any recent report.
The last report published in 2019 highlights several shortcomings in the reception system, including the lack of leasure activities in the detention centre, the lack of information provided to detainees, the lack of staff and their lack of training, the quality of the food provided, the absence of any leasure room or prayer room, lack of access to the outside world including lack of access to mobile phones, lack of access to mental health support staff in the premises and a the need to refurbish the blocks of the centre. The Board’s reports for 2020, 2021 and 2021 have not been made public by the Home Affairs Ministry.
In September 2020, local media shared a video seemingly shot by detainees themselves at the 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”. The newspaper also highlighted that concerns about 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.
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”.
The Malta Chamber of Psychologists reacted also on the detention condition in September 2020 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”.
An OHCHR report covering the period from January 2019 to December 2020,published in May 2021 underlines the failure from the Maltese authorities “to ensure safe disembarkation and adequate reception of migrants, with rescued migrants being stranded aboard vessels that are unsuited for their accommodation, held in inadequate reception conditions upon disembarkation, including being at risk of arbitrary immigration detention, and facing obstacles to access immediate assistance such as medical care.”
In Feilazoo v. Malta, decided in March 2021, the ECtHR found violations of articles 3, 5(1), and 34 ECHR in the case of a Nigerian national placed in immigration detention pending deportation for fourteen months. 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 most recent report publicly available remains the CPT report published in March 2021 following its visit to Malta in September 2020. The CPT reported a catastrophic situation, it found an immigration system that was “struggling to cope: a system that purely “contained” migrants who had essentially been forgotten, within poor conditions of detention and regimes which verged on institutional mass neglect by the authorities.” The CPT urged the Maltese authorities to “change their approach towards immigration detention and to ensure that migrants deprived of their liberty are treated with both dignity and humanity.”
In January 2022, the Government of Malta provided the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe with information on initiatives taken within the framework of the execution of the judgement of Feilazoo v. Malta. The Government submitted that refurbishment works in the block where the applicant was held as well as in the other two blocks of the centre were under way with improved sanitary conditions, According to the government, at the time of writing, 86% of all persons residing in Safi Detention Centre were living in refurbished or brand-new compounds, making the accommodation more comfortable, modernised and resistant to vandalism.
The Government reported it increased outdoor activities and improved communication with families outside and with officers who are stationed inside the facility. According to the Government, at the time of writing, all persons residing at Safi Detention Centre had at least three hours access to outdoor space and a large number of residents have continuous access to outdoor space from sunrise until sunset. It further reported that professional football coaches provide weekly football sessions which are available to all residents. Furthermore, capoeira sessions are also being offered to female residents by a professional capoeira coach, adding that further projects are envisaged for 2022 to include literacy and life skills.
The Government further reported the launch of the Migrant Health Service within the Detention Service in 2021 and the creation of a new clinic, which resulted in a reduction of around 80% of referrals to local health centres and of around 85% to the Accident and Emergency Department at the national hospital. It further reported the introduction of a Close Monitoring Unit (CMU) in 2021 to provide separate accommodation for high-risk persons, for persons with specific medical conditions or for persons who require separate accommodation for their mental wellbeing.
The Government reported the introduction of a Welfare Officer in 2020 to maintain contact with persons held in detention centres and to deal with any complaints or issues they may have. A complaints system was reportedly in place since 2021 and complaint forms and envelopes were disseminated in every compound.
In September 2022, the Committee of Ministers of the European Council took the Government’s observations under consideration. It noted that the authorities have taken a number of measures to improve the material conditions of detention at the Safi Detention Centre “which was, in 2021, the only official, closed detention centre for migrants in use in Malta”. However, the Committee observed that “in order to allow the Committee an overall assessment on whether these measures are sufficient to remedy all the different aspects of the inadequate conditions of detention exposed in the Court’s judgment, more detailed and extensive information is needed. In particular, as the shortcomings found by the Court are also supported by the recent report of the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CPT) in its findings during its 2020 visit”.
The Committee of Minister further invited the Maltese authorities “to inform the Committee whether other centres than Safi are in practice used as detention centres or intended for such use, for example, Hermes Block (Lyster Barracks) (which, according to publicly available data, was closed for renovation), China House in Ħal Far or the Marsa Initial Reception Centre (in which according to the CPT migrants can be de facto deprived of their liberty during lengthy medical clearances).”
In May 2022, Politico published a series of pictures and testimonies of former detainees who had been held in the Maltese detention centres in 2020. The pictures and testimonies confirm the conclusions of the CPT with specific references to some of its observations.
In July 2022, aditus foundation released a series of testimonies from detainees who had been held for 18 to 25 months in both China House and Safi between December 2019 and April 2022. The testimonies confirmed the living conditions had not improved sufficiently since the CPT’s visit.
Aditus foundation and JRS gathered further testimonies of minor applicants who were detained between November 2021 and June 2022 within the context of proceedings before the ECtHR and the Civil Court of Malta (First Hall), all confirming that the situation has not improved sufficiently. One of the applicants claims he was detained in complete isolation for 147 days in a container in the so-called CMU unit due to being diagnosed with tuberculosis.
Accordingly, NGOs report that detention conditions are still substandard with little improvement since the CPT’s visit, beyond the overcrowding linked to the decrease in arrivals and the increase in pushbacks (see Access to territory).
NGOs noted recent positive improvements in some blocks of Safi which appear to have been refurbished but are unable to comment on the quality of the improvement since they have no access to the areas and the government has so far refused to provide any information which wouldd indicate that the living conditions have significantly improved since Feilazoo v. Malta NGOs therefore consider that the conditions of detention as reported by CPT are still relevant for the most part.
As such and despite what the Detention Regulations provide, the Maltese detention centres still offer substandard and undignified living conditions in poorly maintained buildings designed in a carceral setting characterized by the following conditions;
- Large rooms crammed with beds offering no privacy;
- Limited to no contact with the outside, all personal belonging being confiscated including mobile phones;
- Little to no access to daily outdoor exercise and purposeful activities except a few football games and a TV;
- A systematic lack of information on detention, the so-called compact being nowhere to be found
- Lack of heating or ventilation in the blocks exposing detainees to the cold of the winter and the heat of the summer;
- Lack of appropriate clothes for the winter;
- Lack of common space, religious space or library providing reading material;
- Insufficient personal hygiene products and cleaning materials and an inability to obtain a change of clothes;
- Lack of appropriate health care, detainees ironically referring to Panadol as the one and only remedy that will ever be provided to them by the medical staff in the Centre.
- Inappropriate and racist behaviour of some DS officers with some detainees being reported to be threatened, pushed or insulted.
Additionally, NGOs reported that there is no dedicated space for minors in China House, one zone being dedicated to them in the Safi Detention Centre, offering the same living conditions as the other blocks.
Health care in detention
The creation of the Migrants Health Service in 2021 and a new clinic, operating in Safi Detention Centre, saw some positive improvements in the provision of health care to asylum seekers and migrants.
In its communication to the Council of Europe in relation to the execution of Feilazoo v. Malta, the Government reported the creation of the Migrant Health Service resulted in a drastic improvement in the healthcare that was being provided to all persons residing in Detention Centres. According to the Government, the launch of such service has resulted in a reduction of around 80% of referrals to local health centres and of around 85% to the Accident and Emergency Department at the national hospital.
According to the Government, specialist clinics are also being held in the main clinic. Ophthalmic, Infectious Disease, Dermatology and Sexual Health Specialists are doing in-house clinics, which has resulted in enhanced screening and treatment of the persons residing in Detention Centres.
NGOs reported that in 2022, asylum seekers appeared to be systematically screened upon arrival and referred to the appropriate services. However, this must be read within the context of a substantial drop in arrivals with little to no pressure on the system and it remains to be seen how the Migrant Health Service would perform in case of an increase in arrival.
NGOs observed that while asylum seekers may have been screened, little to no information is provided to them in relation to the support that is to be provided, reportedly due to a lack of interpreters available to nurses and doctors both at the Migrant Health Service and the mainstream health services offered at Mater Dei Hospital (MDH).
NGOs reported that some applicants reported that their treatment was stopped for no apparent reason and resumed following their intervention. Numerous applicants suffering from serious conditions reported that they are just given paracetamol when they complain of their conditions.
That said, the Migrant Health Service appears to be aware of the medical condition of the detainees and usually refers them to the mainstream healthcare system, albeit with substantial waiting times. The issue therefore lies in the follow-up and the level of care afforded to applicants in between the medical appointments, which is reported to be insufficient by NGOs. Applicants with a potential serious condition must generally wait several months before being seen by a specialist and a diagnosis on their condition is reached. Meanwhile, their detention may have a detrimental impact on their health.
Third parties, including NGOs, can refer cases to the Migrant Health Service by email and feedback is usually provided when requested. However, the feedback provided is only factual and the Migrant Health Service does not provide their views on the vulnerability of the detainees and whether detention is considered to be harmful in their case. Furthermore, access to medical files being subject to the approval of the Head of DS, NGOs reported that their requests are generally ignored or granted several months after.
NGOs reported that whilst detainees’ suffering from physical conditions are generally referred for treatment, albeit with considerable delays during which they remain in detention, the screening of mental health problems remains an issue, with many detainees falling through gaps, until they attempt suicide and are referred to Mount Carmel Hospital (MCH).
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. 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.
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. No psychological support is provided in detnetion, with detained persons referred to Mount Carmel Hospital.
As previously mentioned, the Superintendent of Public Health implements a mandatory screening of all applicants arriving by sea within the context of the Prevention of Disease Ordinance and the Restriction of Movement Order. This screening happens within the first weeks of arrival, where asylum seekers are de fact detained in the HIRC or “China House”. In the past, asylum seekers could remain in detention for weeks or months pending the conclusion of this screening or due to delays in informing the PIO that the person was cleared. The situation has now improved due the decrease in arrival.
The COVID-related Period of Quarantine Order was repealed in May 2022 and no incident was reported during 2022.
Use of excessive force by the authorities
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 protests in 2019 and 2020. No information is available as to the situation in this regard in relation to 2022.
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 it. Only a few days after the riot at Safi’s 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”.
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.
In February 2021, five young migrants were sentenced to prison after pleading guilty to participating in a riot at the 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.
Several migrants tried to escape the detention centres. In September 2020, 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.
In the 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, as far as known, still on going. 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”. The Magisterial inquiry remained open throughout 2022.
It was also reported in the media that migrants in detention might have been mistreated and/or tortured. EUAA 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, EUAA 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.
It was also reported anonymously by a source within the European agency, that its personnel often received 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.
UNHCR Malta also indicated that the Agency received reports of some physical and verbal abuse against detained asylum seekers as well as suicide attempts in closed centres.
In reply to these allegations, 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”. He 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”.
 Regulation 6A of the Reception Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 420.06 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 10 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 17 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 11 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 12 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 16 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 13 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 19 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 20 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulations 22 and 23 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulations 24, 25 and 27 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulation 34 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217. 19 of the Laws of Malta.
 Regulations 38 and 39 of the Detention Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217.19 of the Laws of Malta
 Monitoring Board for Detained Persons Regulations, Subsidiary Legislation 217.08 of the Laws of Malta
 ECtHR, Feilazoo v. Malta, Application No. 6865/19, Judgment 11 March 2021.
 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.
 Civil Court (First Hall), Ayoubah Fona vs. L-Avukat tal-Istat, 375/2022
 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.
 Article 13 of the Prevention of Disease Ordinance, Chapter 36 of the Laws of Malta
 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.