Overview of the main changes since the previous report update


Country Report: Overview of the main changes since the previous report update Last updated: 30/11/20


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The report was previously updated in February 2019.


Asylum procedure

  • Arrivals by sea: Following the withdrawal of the Italian government from the informal agreement concluded between Italy and Malta in 2014,[1] people rescued within Maltese territorial waters and its Search and Rescue (SAR) zone are now disembarked in Malta. Over the course of 2019, several NGO ships on SAR missions thus requested to disembark in Malta in a context of political controversy on the island and in the European Union (EU).  A total of 3,405 people arrived in Malta by boat, which represents a significant increase compared to 2018 (1,500 arrivals).[2] This puts the Maltese asylum system under significant pressure.


  • Relocation: Relocations from Malta continued to happen on an ad hoc basis throughout 2019, involving non-binding, informal agreements with other EU Member States. This practice prevented many asylum seekers from having access to the asylum procedure and even to the territory of Malta for the time needed to secure the agreement of other EU Member States to take in a number of rescued persons on an ad hoc basis.


  • Criminalisation: A worrying development relates to the recent criminalisation by the Maltese authorities of people rescuing migrants at sea. Two significant cases were reported in 2019. This includes the case of Claus-Peter Reisch – the Captain of the vessel of the German NGO Mission Lifeline which rescued 234 migrants in the Mediterranean in June 2018 – who was finally cleared of all charges by the Court of Criminal Appeal in January 2020.[3] The other case concerns the merchant vessel “El Hiblu 1” where three teenagers are being accused of having hijacked the ship and were subsequently detained and charged with very serious offences, some falling under anti-terrorism legislation and punishable with life imprisonment. The case is still pending and has been subject to severe criticism.


  • Determining authority: In October 2019, a new Refugee Commissioner was appointed,[4] who announced a series of reforms to the Office. These reforms are to be implemented in 2020 and include, inter alia, revising interview and assessment templates.


  • EASO support: In mid-2019, the Maltese authorities also formally requested support from the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in dealing with the high number of applications. In June 2019, an operational and technical assistance plan was signed which provides for support in the area of processing of applications for international protection, including support for the registration and lodging of the application, the Dublin procedure and interviews and the drafting of assessments and decisions.[5] As of July 2019, EASO deployed around 50 staff to support the authorities. Given the continued increase in sea arrivals, a new plan for 2020 was signed between Malta and EASO in December 2019.[6] This new plan foresees that EASO strengthens and increases the support already provided but also adds additional support in the field of reception.


  • Unaccompanied children: Several issues have affected the situation of unaccompanied children in 2019. This includes significant delays in conducting age assessments with unaccompanied minors being kept in detention in the closed section of the Initial Reception Centre (IRC) and Safi barracks for several weeks; delays in transferring persons found to be minors to open centres and delays of several months for legal guardians to be appointed, preventing them from lodging their application and starting the asylum procedure.


Reception conditions


  • Reception capacity: The reception system is under intense pressure and has reached its full capacity throughout 2019. As a result, newly-arrived applicants in 2019 could not access reception centres and were systematically held in detention instead.


  • Reception conditions: The lack of space and resources have led to overcrowded reception centres and a severe deterioration of reception conditions. Several riots took place throughout the year as residents complained about the extreme degradation of conditions. Evictions have taken place to make space for new residents resulting in a number of asylum-seekers becoming homeless.


Detention of asylum seekers


  • Systematic detention of all asylum-seekers: Following the increase of new arrivals, the former practice of automatically detaining all asylum-seekers arriving irregularly was re-instated. This means that, in 2019, all applicants rescued at sea and disembarked in Malta have been automatically detained without any form of assessment on the need to detain them under the Reception Conditions Directive. This has meant that vulnerable applicants, including minors, are de facto detained upon arrival. Referrals to the Agency for the Welfare of Asylum Seekers (AWAS) are possible by NGOs visiting detention and vulnerability assessments can be conducted by the AWAS team. However, the release and transfer of vulnerable applicants to open centres is dependent on the availability of space in open reception centres.


  • Unlawful detention grounds: All asylum-seekers arriving irregularly to Malta are detained under national health regulations on the ground that there is a reasonable suspicion that they might spread contagious diseases.[7] This regulation allows the authorities to restrict a person’s movements for up to four weeks – with a possible extension of up to ten weeks – on suspicion that a disease may be spread. In practice, no form of assessment is conducted, and applicants are only provided with a simple document stating the duration of detention. This practice of systematic detention has been condemned by NGOs and UNHCR on several grounds. In particular, these are that no valid ground exists to detain asylum seekers on the basis of medical screening and no effective remedy is available. Several individual cases were brought to the Court of Magistrates and the detention was considered unlawful.[8]
  • Despite the limitation on the duration of detention as provided by the health regulations, it has been observed that applicants would not be released even after they were medically screened and cleared. Instead, individuals would only be released when a place is made available in open centres.


  • Access to information: In 2019, information was no longer provided by the Office of the Refugee Commissioner (RefCom) to detained applicants, i.e. all applicants who entered Malta irregularly. The only information provided to applicants in detention was delivered by UNHCR Malta, who visited detention centres regularly, and by NGOs on a case by case basis. As a consequence, most applicants detained upon arrival were not informed about the ground for their detention, nor about their rights as asylum-seekers. Information provided to persons who are not detained is also a concern as the asylum system is not structured for asylum seekers who arrive regularly and, therefore, there is no systematic and structured way to provide comprehensive information to asylum seekers outside detention.


[1] Following an informal agreement between Italy and Malta in 2014, almost all persons rescued at sea, including persons rescued by the Armed Forces of Malta, and those rescued in Maltese territorial waters or Malta’s Search and Rescue Zone, were disembarked in Italy. As a consequence, very few persons arrived in Malta by boat between 2014 and mid-2018, all of whom were medical evacuations.

[2] Information provided by the Immigration Police, 2020.

[3] Court of Criminal Appeal, IL-PULIZIJA vs REISCH CLAUS PETER, 150/2019, 07 January 2020, available at: https://bit.ly/3esqsOm.

[4] Appointments are usually for three years, although this is not laid out in legislation.

[5] 2019 Operational and Technical Assistance Plan Agreed by EASO and Malta, 24 June 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3b8FQ00.

[6] 2020 Operational and Technical Assistance Plan Agreed by EASO and Malta, 12 December 2019, available at: https://bit.ly/3abiYfn.

[7] Article 13 of the Prevention of Disease Ordinance, Cap. 36 of the Laws of Malta, 1908, available at: https://bit.ly/2E9u73v.

[8] 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.


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