NEWS | Sunday, 06 January 2008

Migrants rue desperate conditions inside Hal Far tent village

David Darmanin

As the cold weather spell hits the Maltese islands following the festive season, residents are begging the powers that be for improved living conditions at the Hal Far open centre for refugees.
The Hal Far facility hosts almost 1,000 refugees in tents taking up to 30 cramped bunk beds each. Each bed is wrapped in sheeting for privacy and as a basic form of makeshift insulation. Water supply comes only from a roofed, central toilet facility, which is also where residents may wash dishes and cooking ware.
Tabletop cookers (when available) are the only means of heating available within the tents, in which temperatures are considerably low in winter and extremely hot in the summer months.
Needless to mention, the heating methods used substantially increase the fire risk. The only other appliances available in the tents are a few shared refrigerators.
All the fifteen residents MaltaToday spoke to have complained about the unbearable cold that cannot be kept out of tents.
While admitting that the ministry is fully aware of the conditions at Hal Far, Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina justifies the regular power cuts at the facility saying that the whole electrical installation has been totally renovated. “The problem of overloading remains as residents use appliances indiscriminately.”
“About 1,000 of them are living in Hal Far in conditions which are far from desirable. But catering for the needs of such a large number is a very complex matter. Weather conditions this winter have been abysmal and have obviously created greater problems,” Cristina said.
No real recreational facilities are available in the tent village. While a few residents are determined in finding a job and are still positive, some others have lost hope and given up. The general feeling is that of resignation and boredom – many just don’t bother and only a few seem to have the necessary motivation and soft skills needed for a proper job search.
Mustafa, a 35-year-old Somali resident says: “There is no hot water here, and the only shoes I have are the sandals I’m wearing. I was given a jacket but never managed to find shoes. I spend most of my allowance on transport since I go out looking for a job very often. Sometimes I will not even have enough money to eat, let alone buy shoes. I got freedom after five months at Ta’ Kandja detention centre but I’m not sure if I want it now – I prefer it there. There I had no freedom but I had shelter.”
Adam, a 43-year-old Sudanese told MaltaToday: “I came to Malta with my whole family. I wish we had some money to travel out to Italy, Germany or England. The trouble is that after a year and three months in Malta I have never managed to find a job.”
Another Sudanese, 26-year-old Adam Abdullah, on the other hand had managed to find a job in the building industry. But he is still owed €1,061 (Lm450) for 42 days of work. When he reported the unpaid dues to ETC (which had originally helped him land the job), he was asked to report to the Police, who in turn sent him once again to ETC.
A similar case was that of Abdullah Omar, a 24-year-old Somali. In his second month of four spent in detention, he complained about a severe knee pain, which was ignored for the remaining two months. No medical assistance was offered until he moved to the Open Centre, where he was taken to Mater Dei for an operation due to an effusion in the knee joint.
Since those with refugee status are entitled to free medical care, Omar asked for the procurement of prescribed drugs he needed for his post-operation treatment. At Mater Dei, he was duly sent to the Floriana polyclinic – where he was sent back to Mater Dei. Until this day, Omar has not had the opportunity to be treated after his operation and has also been refused the temporary provision of a wheelchair.
Perhaps, more worrying case is Shefili Adam Abdullah’s, another young Somali resident in the tent ghetto. Shefili suffers from a disability resulting from polio, and therefore limps badly. He also suffers from Tuberculosis, for which he managed to get the necessary medication. In his doctor’s prescription, there is a clear specification for “more adequate accommodation”, since the cold and seepage of water through the tents is not conducive to his recovery. His request to be moved to the Balzan open centre has been refused without the provision of a reason.
A smiling Mustafa, a 28-year-old Somali in jacket and tie, who masters English considerably well comments: “At Ta’ Kandja the conditions were not so bad and I’m sure they’re better here although I cannot comment yet since I have just arrived from the detention centre. I’m positive about finding a job in Malta.”
Asked to comment on the poor conditions at the centre, the Minister for Family and Social Solidarity, who is responsible for the open centres, said:
“New tents have been ordered and should be arriving soon. The lifespan of these tents is rather short and we have now also ordered some new ones of a better quality and more resistant to inclement weather. Naturally, the expense is more than threefold.
“We are also looking into the provision of prefabricated units but these have to be ordered from abroad, are very expensive and require high maintenance. Nevertheless, they are being actively considered. Further work will also be carried out on the platforms to avoid water retention. The provision of more space at open centres is imperative as more and more detainees are released.”
No specific date has however been targeted for the completion of such initiatives.
“A short while ago there were no plans to open a new solid facility but the increasing numbers and consequent overcrowding with negative repercussions are rendering this imperative and the ministry is looking for premises that may provide for our needs. This is much easier athe staff at OIWAS are actively looking for alternative accommodation and have come up with feasible proposals”, she concludes.
OIWAS, the Organisation for the Integration and Welfare of Asylum Seekers, is the government’s agency responsible for integration policy. Director Alex Tortell, commenting on the restrictive procedure to allow media into open centres, worryingly commented that the open centre is “private property”.


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