Covering events from January - December 2003

The automatic and excessively lengthy detention of asylum-seekers was criticized by national and international bodies. Conditions of detention in facilities holding asylum-seekers and migrants fell short of international standards. New information emerged reinforcing concern that a number of individuals among a group of some 220 Eritreans deported from Malta to Eritrea in 2002 were detained and tortured on return (see Eritrea entry).

Asylum and immigration

Hundreds of asylum-seekers and unauthorized migrants, including pregnant women, nursing mothers and children, were held in detention centres for aliens on grounds beyond those allowed by international standards and for periods often ranging between one and two years. The situation was the result of the unauthorized arrival of an unprecedented number of asylum-seekers and migrants between November 2001 and the end of 2003; the automatic detention of all those arriving irregularly until the conclusion of refugee determination procedures or return to the country of origin; and severe delays in the processing of asylum applications. The delays appeared to be largely the result of acute understaffing in the Refugee Commissioner's Office, the first instance decision-making body.

Some 265 people remained in detention even after being granted refugee status or temporary humanitarian protection, apparently because of a shortage of accommodation in the community. They were transferred to two newly established open centres in June.

There were claims that detainees in the closed centres were frequently unable to exercise their rights as they were not fully and regularly informed of asylum determination proceedings and their progress and lacked access to timely legal advice. The Refugee Appeals Board systematically confirmed first instance decisions rejecting asylum applications, resulting in calls for greater transparency and diligence in the appeals process.

In November the Minister for Justice and Home Affairs stated that the detention of asylum-seekers and migrants "should not exceed a reasonable period" and that the government planned to guarantee this via several reforms. These included "accelerating the procedures for processing asylum applications, increasing human resources and drafting an internal policy of not detaining irregular immigrants beyond a reasonable period of time". He said that reducing the number of detainees would improve detention conditions. In December over 65 Eritrean and Ethiopian asylum-seekers who had been detained for periods ranging between 17 and 22 months, none of whom had been granted refugee status or, apparently, temporary humanitarian protection, were transferred to an open centre.

Detention conditions

There were numerous complaints of people in some centres suffering severe overcrowding and very inadequate sanitary arrangements. In one centre people were housed in tents for months during the winter season, suffering cold temperatures and flooding with rainwater. Some inmates, including children, had little or no regular access to exercise in the open air, and no recreational facilities. During the year efforts were made to allow detained school-age children to leave the centres during the day to attend local schools.

Local non-governmental organizations providing basic social and medical services, often on a voluntary basis, reported a sharp deterioration in the mental health of many of the inmates as the time they had spent detained in poor conditions lengthened, without any apparent progress in the processing of their asylum claims.

Intergovernmental bodies

In June the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stated that, in order to comply fully with international standards, Malta's asylum legislation needed improvements in several areas. UNHCR strongly recommended that the automatic detention of asylum-seekers be discontinued.

In October, in public statements made at the end of a visit to Malta the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights said that living conditions in detention centres for aliens were "shocking", that asylum-seekers were detained for unacceptable periods of time, and that the Office of the Commissioner for Refugees was seriously understaffed. He underlined that urgent action was needed to address the situation.

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