"Many migrants in Malta face inadequate living conditions and have little chance of integrating durably in society" said the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights, Thomas Hammarberg, releasing today his report on the visit to Malta he carried out from 23-25 March 2011. According to the Commissioner, Malta should establish a human-rights compliant system of reception and integration of migrants. "European solidarity is key to this endeavour" said the Commissioner; "this means more avenues enabling migrants to move to other countries, but also financial and other assistance to improve the material conditions, asylum determination procedures and integration opportunities in Malta. This is even more urgent today, as Malta has seen new arrivals of migrants from Libya since the end of March".
The Commissioner considers the policy of mandatory administrative detention for arriving migrants, including asylum-seekers, as irreconcilable with human rights standards. He calls on the Maltese authorities to implement alternatives to detention and to make effective remedies to challenge detention available to migrants.
As concerns living conditions in closed and open centres, the Commissioner finds the situation in the Hal-Far tent village inadequate even for short periods of time and recommends its closure. Material conditions in the Hangar Open Centre in Hal-Far, which has re-opened since the Commissioner's visit and following new arrivals from Libya, are also reported to be seriously sub-standard. "This is a very serious concern", said the Commissioner, "especially as vulnerable individuals, including very small children are accommodated there". The Commissioner recalls that vulnerable groups of migrant people, such as families with children, unaccompanied minors, pregnant women, elderly persons and persons with disabilities are entitled to special protection. "They may be detained only as a measure of last resort, not as a rule. Adequate care should always be provided to them. Therefore their accommodation in big open centres including those in Hal-Far and Marsa, must be avoided."
Commissioner Hammarberg praises the Maltese authorities' long-standing efforts to rescue irregular migrants at sea and encourages them to keep the country's borders open for people in need of international protection, including those who are forced to flee from North Africa. He underlines the need to ensure effective access to adequate asylum determination procedures and to avoid returning individuals to countries where they would face a real risk of persecution or ill-treatment.
The Commissioner welcomes the progress made in several aspects of the asylum system in recent years in Malta, such as the shortening of the time needed to process asylum applications, improved provision of information to asylum seekers, and the increased rate of recognition of refugee status. However, further progress is necessary in law and practice concerning asylum proceedings. "The Maltese authorities should provide access to legal aid, and improve access to case files for asylum seekers and their representatives in first instance proceedings before the Refugee Commissioner. Furthermore, second instance proceedings must be made an effective tool for review".
As concerns migrants' integration into society, the Commissioner is concerned by the fact that the system currently in place to support migrants, including beneficiaries of subsidiary protection, perpetuates their social exclusion and leaves them at serious risk of destitution. He stresses that financial support for migrants should not be dependent on residence in the open centres and that all beneficiaries of international protection should benefit from financial support and social assistance.
Finally, Commissioner Hammarberg is seriously concerned at manifestations of racism and xenophobia in Malta. "These phenomena exacerbate the difficulties that migrants face across many areas of life, including employment, housing, access to services and places of entertainment. Stronger efforts are needed to counter this trend and to foster the durable integration of migrants in Malta. The media should also be more engaged in fostering mutual understanding and combating stereotypes in public debate."
The response of the Maltese authorities is appended to the Commissioner's report.