The report was previously updated in April 2020.
In 2020, 2,281 people were rescued at sea and disembarked in Malta. This is a significant decrease compared to 2019 when over 3,400 sea arrivals were recorded. However, search and rescue operations, shipwrecks and disembarkation events continued to take place throughout the year, while media and NGOs reported multiple failures from the authorities to respect Malta’s obligation under international law including pushbacks, maritime detention, and delays in rescue coordination.
On 21 March 2020, in order to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, Malta officially closed its borders for travel purposes and the authorities announced in April that no migrant would be allowed to disembark in Malta. This resulted in Malta refusing all disembarkation of people rescued at sea, including the rescue operations carried out by the Maltese authorities themselves. Malta made use of private vessels outside territorial waters to detain people rescued at sea. By the end of May 2020, 425 persons were kept aboard four vessels, allegedly for quarantine purposes. This situation sparked outrage from Maltese NGOs relentlessly calling on the government to end this de facto detention in inhumane conditions. The EU Commission also urged Malta to immediately disembark the detained migrants. On 6 June 2020, Malta disembarked the group, but only to place them directly in its detention centres.
On 15 April 2020, a group of 51 people, including women and children, were unlawfully returned to Tripoli after having been rescued in Malta’s SAR area by a Libyan-flagged fishing boat routinely docked in Malta. Five bodies were recovered whilst migrants onboard also reported seven missing to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Although the boat sent several alarm messages, it took days for Italy and Malta to send out air reconnaissance flights. Eventually, Malta coordinated their return to Libya. Upon arrival, the 51 survivors were placed in detention. In the investigations following the incident, a former official in the Office of the Prime Minister recounted how, during previous years, Malta would prevent migrant boats from entering Malta’s SAR zone but alerting the Libyan coast guard about their presence. In summer 2020, Malta and Libya signed a Memorandum of Understanding aimed at coordinating respective efforts on migration issues.
In 2020, the asylum procedure in Malta was reformed in law and also in policy. The new International Protection Act established an International Protection Agency and an International Protection Appeals Tribunal, in replacement of the Office of the Refugee Commissioner and the Refugee Appeals Board. Despite some positive steps (establishment of more formal procedures, revision of interview and assessment templates, legalisation of a temporary humanitarian protection status, additional safeguards for vulnerable applicants), the reform did not address some of the most important issues faced by asylum-seekers in Malta, namely the lack of effective remedy for applications processed under accelerated procedures and the lack of capacity of the (non-judicial) appeal body. In 2020, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) further increased its support to the asylum authorities since mid-2019. The Agency is now involved in almost all steps of the procedure: registration and lodging of applications, conducting personal interview, and drafting assessment or assisting with Dublin cases.
The reception system (open centres and other State-funded accommodation) had already reached its full capacity in 2019. As a result, newly arrived applicants in 2020 could not access reception centres and were systematically held in detention. Despite notable improvements – increased capacity of staff in the centres; development of information provision systems; new vulnerability assessment procedure; per diem allowance extended to asylum-seekers not living in the centres – the situation remained very chaotic due to the serious lack of space and lack of resources, leading to deteriorated living conditions. The length of stay in the reception system was lowered from one year to six months, except for families and the vulnerable. As a result, homelessness has been steadily on the rise, in particular during a year of pandemic when protection beneficiaries, applicants, and other migrants struggled to find or secure employment.
Detention of asylum seekers
In 2020, all applicants rescued at sea and disembarked in Malta were automatically detained without any form of individualised assessment. As a result, vulnerable applicants, including minors, were also de facto detained upon arrival. Newly arrived asylum-seekers were detained under different legal regimes, largely depending on their nationality. Applicants coming from a country listed in the Act’s safe country of origin list were generally detained under the recast Reception Conditions Directive, without the possibility to effectively challenge their detention. Other applicants were detained under either national public health legislation or under no legal regime at all but on a de facto basis. Both situations were declared illegal by the Maltese courts. Applicants detained in the latter two scenarios were generally released when space was made available in the open reception centres, often after several months of arbitrary detention. Moreover, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, access to detention was severely restricted for all entities, including NGOs, for several weeks, leaving detained applicants without any information or counsel regarding their situation. The Council of Europe Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited Malta in September 2020 and confirmed the systematic arbitrary detention of all asylum-seekers without any access to information or effective remedy, in conditions that were described as “institutional neglect”.