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News • February 15 2004

Tonio Borg sticks to his guns on detention

The report drawn up by the Human Rights Commissioner of the Council of Europe, Alvaro Gil-Robles, on Malta’s detention centres, may just about prove what kind of bearing the CoE has in European states. Gil-Robles may state that in principle, asylum seekers should not be detained when they have not committed any offence, but Home Affairs and Justice Minister Tonio Borg is sticking to his guns, and the detention policy is here to stay:
"The government does not intend building some Lm6 million prison just for asylum seekers to the same standards as our prison. We don’t have the means to do this. What we need to do is take measures to reduce overpopulation and reduce those persons in detention. The number has already reduced since Alvaro Gil-Robles’s visit here back in 2003, from over 550 to 227 at present.
"We are going to retain our detention policy. We are sorry to inform the commissioner that the country’s detention policy will continue, but we are going to provide certain remedies in order to keep numbers at a low level."
Tonio Borg stresses that the report is positive in certain aspects. It praises all the initiatives taken by Malta with regards to refugees. It also accepts that this is a problem which the country cannot solve on its own. "It praises the government’s pragmatic approach and its exemplary co-operation in this matter," Borg says. The minister believes conditions today are better with the reduction in the number of detainees down to 227, as well as the provision of two open detention centres: one in Hal-Far, and another recently-opened centre at Lyster Barracks, which is a small unit run by the army.
However, despite criticism levelled at the condition of detainees in the immigration camps run by the police and the army, there are no signs that Government will be upgrading the facilities. The handcuffing of asylum seekers in transit will not be removed, as suggested by Gil-Robles, a factor which Borg said is only naturally apposite when a country operates a detention policy:
"We are in a situation where we cannot afford releasing all detainees as suggested by the Commissioner. The Opposition supports us on this matter. If I had to say we were going to invest Lm2 million to refurbish the detention centres, I would be fooling you. The principal problem is overcrowding, and this is what we are tackling."
Asked whether the EU should be fronting more funds to help maintain the detention policy, Borg says the EU can assist in terms of repatriation funds or joint-flights which collect migrants to be repatriated from more than one country heading to a destination. The prospect of joint-flights has also been discussed with an Italian delegation which arrived in Malta earlier this week.
Italy has been considered as a neighbour intent on having Malta act as a stronger buffer against migrants landing in its shores. A recent episode led to the repatriation of Egyptian migrants at Malta’s expense, after the vessel carrying the migrants refused to be accompanied into Maltese waters and instead landed in Sicily. Borg denies any pressure from the Italian authorities:
"When we repatriated the Egyptians which bypassed Malta and landed in Italy, we did that on political lines and because we had an agreement with Egypt. The last country I would criticise in their financial support towards Malta would be Italy. They gave us millions, financing our civil protection system. Italy did more than other countries. Throughout our discussions, they have strove to help us most in joint-repatriation operations. They have never criticised our detention policy. But we refused hosting a reception centre for migrants intercepted by patrol boats which would not be Maltese. The meeting with the Italian delegation was a positive one."
Borg has also defended amendments to the Refugee Act and Immigration Act which he stresses are aimed at curbing abuses by immigrants that do not suit criteria for refugee status. Lamenting the lack of positive review by the media, Borg said one of the amendments will be allowing detainees who have spent too much time in detention, pending their application for refugee status, to apply to a board for provisional liberty, the determining criteria being unreasonable duration or because there is no reasonable prospect of deportation within a reasonable time.
"It would be risky to set a specified period of ‘unreasonable’ duration. One year may be reasonable for an adult, but unreasonable for a child. But there are certain cases of migrants whose applications have been refused, even at appeals stage, and who have not revealed their nationalities and details to the authorities. These migrants who refuse to co-operate with the authorities can only be kept in detention until they supply the information needed for repatriation.
"As Gil-Robles said, we already have the highest approval rate of refugees and those given temporary humanitarian status in Europe. We are making our contribution, with over 600 persons given protection, rights and work permits. When one considers the big crisis we had, we emerged from it with honour. The board may determine that six months may be deemed an unreasonable period of detention for a migrant."
Borg said the Government will also be proposing the creation of a safe country of origin list, which would be determined by criteria such as democracy and rule of law: "This would mean the Refugee Commissioner would have to accelerate the review for these applications. The safe countries list would be reserved for countries such as European states, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and America. In this case, the application will be either refused or reviewed swiftly by the Commissioner, otherwise this person will be residing in Malta for a longer period, abusively."

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