Covering events from January - December 2004

Asylum-seekers were automatically detained and held for prolonged periods. Conditions of detention in facilities holding asylum-seekers and migrants fell below international standards. Domestic violence against women remained a problem.

Asylum and immigration

Hundreds of asylum-seekers and migrants arrived by boat and an unknown number died in the seas around Malta while attempting to reach Europe. By the end of the year, over 800 people, including women and children, were held in detention centres run by the police and armed forces. Many were held on grounds beyond those permissible under international norms. Some were detained for between one and two years. Inmates frequently lacked access to appropriate legal advice. There were severe delays in the decision-making process regarding asylum applications, largely as a result of understaffing in the Refugee Commissioner's Office and the Refugee Appeals Board. There was a lack of transparency in the appeals process as the Board regularly failed to provide reasons for upholding first instance decisions rejecting asylum applications.

In February, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on his 2003 visit. He expressed concern about the policy of automatic detention until the conclusion of refugee determination proceedings or return to country of origin. He emphasized that in principle asylum-seekers should not be detained. He urged the authorities to develop alternatives and to ensure that the detention of irregular migrants was not "prolonged indefinitely." He called on the authorities to adopt a law permitting the detention of asylum-seekers only in exceptional circumstances and under judicial control. He also called on the authorities to ensure that legal aid was available to asylum-seekers during the appeals process; to provide decision-making bodies with sufficient staff; and to ensure appeal decisions were "motivated on the facts and merits."

Amendments to the Refugee and Immigration Acts in August provided for an increase in the resources available to the decision-making bodies and for inmates of detention centres to submit a request for conditional release on grounds that continued detention would be "unreasonable as regards duration or because there is no reasonable prospect of deportation within a reasonable time." However, no criteria were given for assessing what would constitute an "unreasonable" length of detention. The government continued to assert that it would not be in Malta's "national interest" to end the detention policy.

Conditions of detention

In the second half of the year, following a large number of arrivals by sea, some detention centres were severely overcrowded, with people housed in tents and provided with inadequate sanitary arrangements and diets. Tensions ran high and inmates staged a number of protests. Some detainees, including children, had little access to exercise in the open air and no recreational facilities. Children also experienced delays in gaining access to education.

A number of detainees suffered mental health problems. After examining the situation of those receiving treatment under police surveillance in Mount Carmel Psychiatric Hospital, the Ombudsman concluded that they did not suffer from chronic mental health problems but depression, mainly due to lack of information about their situation and their indefinite detention.

In July the government announced it was in the process of setting up a centralized social welfare service to address the needs of asylum-seekers and refugees. In December the government said that it had agreed on a policy document addressing all aspects of migration, including measures to improve accommodation facilities, to be discussed during a national conference on immigration in February 2005.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture visited Malta in January, principally to examine the treatment of foreign nationals detained on arrival, as well as the procedures and means of restraint applied in the context of forcible deportations by air. The report was not available by the end of the year.

Update: deportation of Eritreans in 2002

In May, AI issued a report describing the organization's grave concerns about the human rights situation in Eritrea (see Eritrea entry), including the treatment of some 220 Eritrean citizens deported from Malta to Eritrea in 2002. The Maltese government asserted that it had received no information prior to their departure indicating that the individuals would be at risk of human rights violations if returned. It subsequently set up an inquiry, apparently to examine whether the process leading to the deportations was regular and legal, and whether any individuals or authorities had exerted undue pressure for the Eritreans to be returned.

AI wrote to the Minister for Justice and Home Affairs and the magistrate conducting the inquiry seeking cooperation in providing AI with details of the inquiry's terms of reference and making a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring that the inquiry was thorough and impartial. AI recalled the correspondence which it had addressed to the Minister both before and after the 2002 deportations warning that Eritrea could not be considered a safe country for Eritrean asylum-seekers and pointing out specific categories of Eritreans at particular risk of serious human rights violations if returned.

The authorities declined to provide AI with the terms of reference. In September the media reported the publication of the magistrate's findings. She apparently criticized the Refugee Appeals Board for failing to supply the reasons for rejecting the asylum applications lodged by some of the deportees, but concluded that this failure did not affect the legality of the whole process leading to deportation and that no undue pressure had been exerted. It was unclear to what extent the inquiry had examined the deportations in the light of Malta's obligations regarding the principle of non-refoulement contained in the UN Refugee Convention and AI's warnings to the government before the deportations were carried out.

Violence against women

Women were frequently subjected to domestic violence which was still not defined in Malta as a specific crime in law. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern at the delay in passing a Domestic Violence Bill, under discussion since March 2000, and urged Malta to expedite its adoption.

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