Since joining the EU, Malta has become the first port of call for African refugees heading to Europe. But the island has a poor record of dealing with illegal immigrants and human rights officials are concerned.
Not a safe haven for stranded refugees.
For the small Mediterranean island and its 400,000 inhabitants, the yearly influx of immigrants is a huge challenge. Unable to deal with the boatloads of Africans washing up on its shores, Malta sends many back home. A few of the lucky ones receive refugee status, while the rest remain in detention centers, their fate uncertain.
In 2002, Malta experienced its largest wave of illegal immigrants when some 1,700 people landed on the island, the first European harbor on the route between Africa and the northern El Dorado of the EU. Although the numbers arriving since then have declined, the country still has difficulty coping with the many asylum seekers.
Since becoming a member of the European Union in May, Malta has come into the spotlight of human rights organizations, who are concerned the country is overwhelmed by the problem. A report published earlier this year by the Council of Europe's Commission for Human Rights focused on the situation in Malta and vehemently criticized the way the government treats illegal immigrants.
Inhumane detention centers
The majority of Malta's illegal immigrants will never see the island outside the detention centers.
Would-be asylum seekers are detained in sealed-off holding centers in reputedly deplorable conditions. At Hal Safi, for instance, the rooms are dark, filthy and overpopulated. Ten men share a room; there is no privacy, and the detainees can only go outside for fresh air once a day in a muddy field surrounded by barbed wire.
The illegal immigrants -- many who were on their way to Italy from North Africa -- are trapped in Malta, say European human rights experts who criticize the systematic detainment. But according to the country's Interior Minister, Tonio Borg, the detention is justified.
It's necessary because of national interest. What one has to understand is that we are 313 square miles in size with 1,200 inhabitants per square mile. So we need special measures," he says.
Alvaro Gil-Robles, the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights, argues that Malta's detention policy is inhumane. "The asylum seeker is someone who is escaping human rights violations, who is in distress and who needs help," Gil-Robles says.
"Systematic detention cannot be justified," he adds.
Harbors abound in Malta, but few immigrants are welcome.
Arnold Cassola, Secretary-General of the European Greens, refers to the systematic detention of refugees as an obvious human rights violation: "You cannot keep even an animal cooped up in an area where you have no space, no social life, where you can just walk up and down -- human beings need to exercise their mind and not be treated as if they have killed or stolen when they haven't."
Most of the illegal immigrants are held in detention for over a year. Their applications for asylum have been turned down as have their appeals. Many detainees suffer from extreme frustration which often leads to depression. More than a dozen have had to undergo psychiatric treatment.
One of the detainees, George Brown from Liberia, describes the situation to Deutsche Welle:
"The situation in the camp is deadly. Since we entered here we’ve been suffering. We’ve been neglected, humiliated. They treat us like criminals here. We don’t know our fate in this place. We’re locked up, can’t go outside. We don’t have any rights in this place. We’re more or less like prisoners -- though we did not commit any crime," Brown said.
Even prisons are better
Only a few non-government organizations have access to the detention centers. One of them is the Catholic group Peace Lab, whose volunteers visit the immigrants and provide them with newspapers and drawing material. The Socialist parliamentarian Joe Abela has been to the camps and says that the situation -- although still alarming -- has improved somewhat since the publication of the Gil-Robles report.
He says the detention centers are still overcrowded with just four showers and toilets for over 80 people. "There is no privacy. It's cold in winter and extremely hot in summer. It's just terrible," he says describing Hal Safi.
The situation in the detention centers is even more shocking when compared to the conditions found in Maltese prisons, says Gil-Robles: "Prisons are in good conditions. The prisons have activities for the detainees and people take care of them. Generally speaking conditions in the prisons are much better than those in the detention camps."
There's another difference too: When a prisoner's sentence is done, he is free to leave. The illegal immigrants in Malta's detention centers, however, do not know how long they will have to wait. Months, years -- their fate is uncertain.