Malta’s immigration situation: a visit to Safi’s detention centre

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Hal Safi,Malta, 7 March 2012 – The Safi Detention Centre for Immigrants is situated on an army base at Hal Safi, in the southeast ofMalta, close to the international airport. It occupies a three story building at the back of the compound. Surrounded by a barbed wire fence and with barred windows, through which detainees wave and shout at visitors, the centre looks very much like a prison. It is managed by Lt Col Brian Gatt, who receives Efus’ Executive Committee’s members.

Inside, in the training and library room, Lt Col Gatt and his colleagues of the armed forces and the police, who jointly run the centre with the support of civilians, present the centre and how it is run.

Safis the second largest of the three migrant detention centres of Malta. As the Maltese government follows a mandatory detention policy, all migrants arriving in Malta have to go through a detention centre. There, they are screened by authorities who register them in the EU Eurodac database of fingerprints of applicants for asylum and illegal immigrants. They also undergo a medical check-up and receive medical attention if necessary.

Identifying migrants and obtaining papers from their country of origin is a time consuming process. It is followed by another process to determine if a migrant is entitled to asylum, which can last up to one year, although Maltese authorities say they usually do it in five months. If they are granted asylum, migrants are relocated in open centres, where they are provided with a room and daily meals. They are also given a work permit, and benefit from the same social and medical services as Maltese citizens. Those who are not granted asylum are returned to their country of origin, either with the help of Frontex (the EU frontier agency) or by a flight directly chartered by the Maltese government. However, if the process to determine asylum is not completed in 18 months, migrants are also released into an open centre where they have to await the final decision. Unaccompanied children, families with children, pregnant women, people with special needs and elderly people are not detained but only screened and sent to open centres.

When the Efus delegation visitedSafi, 218 people were detained there, including 45 women. Saficentre is divided into five zones that all include bedrooms and toilets, as well as a kitchen, a living room, and a first aid room. A doctor is present every day on the premises. There is also a classroom where detainees can attend classes of English and “life adaptation”.

While there have been riots here, in particular last year, Lt Col Gatt says the situation has improved a lot since then. During our visit, many detainees were shouting, trying to get our attention and tell us about their plight. According to Lt Col Gatt, the main problem is that the inmense majority of detainees do not want to be in Malta. They have landed here on a journey towards mainlandEuropewhere they hope to find a job and people they know.

He also explains that these facilities are quite recent, since the inflow of migrants surged only afterMalta’s entry in the EU in 2004.  He adds that the detention services went through a steep learning curve and have worked hard to improve treatment of migrants, in particular those who are vulnerable, and detention facilities.

The challenge, he says, is also to manage the cultural diversity of migrants.Safidetainees come from 36 countries, and there are often conflicts between East and West Africans, Muslims and Christians, and various tribes and ethnic groups. The centre has set up special procedures, notably with the help of the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), in particular for Somalian refugees who represent about 55% of arriving migrants, and who are granted asylum in most cases. Moreover, the detention centres cooperate with various NGOs, such as the Red Cross. Indeed, we saw Red Cross delegates during our visit atSafi. Also, Maltese authorities have improved the procedure for granting asylum, which is now faster than a few years ago.

Lt Col Gratt says that all these efforts are bearing fruit, and he points out that the fact that former detainees usually greet him in a friendly way when they meet in the street is a good sign.